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Black Youths on Rampage in South Africa

Times Staff Writer

Tens of thousands of black youths rampaged Wednesday through Soweto, South Africa’s biggest black ghetto township, hijacking buses, burning supermarkets and other stores and looting bread trucks and meat wagons in a day of rioting that police could barely contain.

At one point, 2,500 of the rioters threatened to overrun a local court where 105 youths were to have been tried in connection with a demonstration last weekend, but the crowd was dispersed by police with dogs and mounted soldiers armed with automatic rifles and long whips.

Later, the rioters attacked the home of Soweto’s mayor, Edward Kunene, and destroyed it with firebombs. A bus carrying seven foreign tourists, one of them American and the others British and West German, was caught briefly in the riot and was stoned. An Englishwoman was cut by flying glass when bus windows were broken.

By nightfall, police and army patrols were firing tear gas and birdshot at virtually any group of youths they encountered on the township’s streets.

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Brigadier Jan Coetzee, Soweto’s police commander, said the rioting reached “serious heights of intensity” during the day before police and soldiers succeeded in restoring order. This was the first extensive violence in Soweto in many months of racial unrest nationwide, and the police clearly had to struggle to end the chaos. “We were very worried this morning,” a senior police officer said.

Only limited casualties--about 20 people injured and no fatalities--were reported Wednesday in Soweto, but four blacks were killed in widespread unrest elsewhere around the country, bringing the deaths so far this week to at least 12.

Young Mother Killed

Two of Wednesday’s victims were killed in Witbank, 70 miles northeast of Johannesburg, as police fired shotguns to disperse large crowds of blacks there. A 9-year-old Witbank boy was fatally shot when a mob fled into his front yard, and a 16-year-old woman died when she ran out of the house to save her baby, who had crawled into the street. A pregnant woman was shot and killed there Tuesday, according to police.

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A black man was shot in Benoni, a Johannesburg suburb, by police dispersing a mob early Wednesday, according to police reports, and another was killed in Queenstown in the troubled eastern part of Cape province during a firebomb attack on the home of a local official. More than 475 persons, all but three of them black, have died in 10 months of racial unrest here.

More trouble is expected later this week if the funeral Saturday of four black activists found slain last month outside Port Elizabeth in eastern Cape province turns into a confrontation with the police. Around Johannesburg, tension is high because of a renewed school boycott in 26 different black communities after the mid-year holiday.

Clashes in Soweto began early Wednesday when 1,500 youths hijacked six buses from a depot and three others off the street to carry them to the court where the 105 youths were to be tried after their arrest Saturday outside the mayor’s house. The young people were charged with holding an illegal gathering; South Africa’s severe security laws prohibit most political rallies unless government permission is obtained.

Charges Dropped

The police and mounted troops quickly arrested more than 400 people at the court, but later released them when the bus company would not press charges. The charges against the 105 arrested Saturday were also dropped “pending further investigation.”

As the crowd outside the magistrate’s court grew, outnumbering the policemen and soldiers by more than 20 to 1 and pressing closer and closer to the court compound, the police colonel in command ordered it to disperse and sent in police dogs and the mounted troops, their whips lashing out.

When most of the group gathered a short time later at Regina Mundi Catholic Church, a mile away, police fired volleys of tear gas and birdshot to scatter the youths; plainclothes officers armed with shotguns and tear gas entered the church and told those who had taken refuge inside to leave.

The youths, joined by tens of thousands of others who had left their schools, then began the rampage through Soweto, home to more than 1.5 million blacks. An army helicopter repeatedly circled the city to direct security forces to trouble spots, and armored cars roared from one to another until after dusk.

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