IN a macabre and unprecedented twist to the endemic violence wracking South Africa, five hooded gunmen burst into a church in a Cape Town suburb during a service last might and opened fire, killing at least 10 and wounding 53. About 1,000 people were in St James's Church of England, Kenilworth, when the attack took place.
The attackers, who used AK-47 rifles, also lobbed two hand grenades into the church. The police said all five were black. Nobody had claimed responsibility for the attack by midnight last night.
Among the dead were three Russian seamen, who were among 130 of their countrymen attending the service. Two hours after the killing, the notes the Reverend Ross Anderson used for his sermon were still lying on the altar, and the church aisles remained streaked with blood.
A church usher who was monitoring the door through which the attackers entered said he saw a rifle poke through the door. 'I dived for the stage . . . The shots were continuous,' he said.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the head of the Anglican Church in South Africa, described the massacre as a diabolical act - 'the most foul, despicable thing imaginable'. 'We in the Church of the Province extend our deepest condolences to the bereaved and our sympathies to the injured and all those of the Church of England in South Africa.'
President F W de Klerk said from Pretoria that he had learned with shock and horror of the killings. 'The attack on a church introduces a new and horrifying element into the cycle of violence which we are currently experiencing and points to the inherently evil nature of those involved in the perpetration of violence.'
Immediately putting a political colouration on the attack, Mr de Klerk said 'the great majority of decent South Africans' should 'not allow outrages such as this to undermine our common effort to achieve a peaceful and negotiated solution to the problems of our country'.
The Law and Order Minister, Hernus Kriel, echoed Mr de Klerk's words and said the attack 'emphasises the dire need for our entire society to unite with the South African Police in combating such atrocities'.
'Every effort should also be made to assist the SAP in tracing and seizing illegal weapons such as those used in this horrific incident.'
An eyewitness, who did not want to be named, said he saw a man walk in through the side door of the church and then 'a pop-popping sound'. 'At first I could not comprehend that shots were being fired, thinking there had to be some sort of electrical fault. I dived onto the ground and lay there until the shooting stopped and then ran out and got into my car and got as far away as I could.'
Initial police reports indicated two white men had been among the five who attacked the church but the police later retracted this and declared that all the attackers had been black.
The liberal Democratic Party issued a statement last night describing the massacre as 'the most appalling act of terrorism' in years. The impact on the democratic process would be devastating, the DP said.
Qualifying somewhat the DP statement, numerous massacres have occurred in South Africa in the last three years in which rather more than 10 people have died. Most of these have been in black townships either in Natal province, where the Zulu-on-Zulu conflict between ANC and Inkatha supporters has raged for eight years, or in the Johannesburg area. Cape Town has been relatively free of such atrocities. Nationwide, the white suburbs have remained virtually untouched by indiscriminate violence.
The impact of the attack on white South Africans, already jittery and uncertain enough at the prospect of democracy and black rule, seems bound further to undermine the effort of the ANC and government to build a new political centre through constitutional negotiations. The only political beneficiaries from the church massacre are likely to be the black and white right-wing extremists pushing to halt progress towards democratic elections.
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