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Johannesburg Battle Kills 18, Jolt Politicians to Reconciliation

By Paul Taylor
The Washington Post

Rival black groups killed at least 18 people in a gun battle in downtown Johannesburg Monday, jolting South Africa's delicate political transformation -- and apparently triggering new efforts at reconciliation.

Gunmen supporting the Inkatha Freedom Party and the African National Congress battled for hours in the canyons between the city's gleaming skyscrapers, scattering lunch-time crowds and wounding hundreds of people.

Shortly afterward,the government announced that a first-ever, four-way meeting would be held later this week among President Frederik W. de Klerk, ANC President Nelson Mandela, Inkatha President Mangosuthu Buthelezi and Buthelezi's ally, the Zulu tribal king, Goodwill Zwelithini.

They will discuss steps to control violence and ensure fairness in South Africa's first democratic election next month -- as well as Inkatha's objections to the new constitution under which the balloting is to be held and Zwelithini's demand for Zulu sovereignty.

Monday's battles began after about 10,000 heavily armed Zulus marched in protest against the election. The Zulus -- supporters of Inkatha -- clashed with backers of the ANC, which is expected to gain a landslide victory in the vote. It was the first time in the blood-stained history of the apartheid era that such a battle had taken place in downtown Johannesburg.

Until roughly a year ago, the government and Inkatha were allied against the ANC. But as the ANC and government have grown closer negotiating the final stages of South Africa's transition to democracy, Inkatha has felt itself spurned and become an election spoiler.

Political and economic turf wars between the ANC and Inkatha are the major cause of the political violence that has claimed 20,000 lives in South Africa over the past decade. Each party Monday accused the other of instigating Monday's killings, and berated police for not doing enough to prevent them.

Police confirmed 18 deaths, but unofficial reports suggested the toll could be twice that high, with up to 400 wounded, in Monday's battles. The bulk of the dead were shot in the streets of Johannesburg's concrete and glass financial district. Horrified pedestrians sprawled behind parked cars and office workers dived under desks or away from windows.

The shootouts caused chaos, leaving journalists and other witnesses uncertain where the first shots had come from or what had triggered them.