COLUMN ONE : S. Africa's '3rd Force' of Hit Men : The former leader of a secret police unit who once ruthlessly hunted apartheid's foes is now among the hunted, hiding out in London and running from his old colleagues.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Capt. Dirk Coetzee once was one of South Africa's ruthless hunters, leading a secret police unit that tracked, harassed, framed, blackmailed, burned, poisoned and assassinated those who dared oppose apartheid.

Coetzee came clean, though, admitting his crimes and naming the generals who ordered them. But no one was charged, or even fired or suspended.

Now, two years later, Coetzee finds himself among the hunted, running from his old colleagues. "It's a vicious, dangerous world once you become their enemy," he said.

An attempt to assassinate Coetzee last year--and another plot this year--make clear that despite regular government denials, South African death squads and dirty-tricks campaigns have continued to operate alongside President Frederik W. de Klerk's reforms.

The man who knows too much hides out these days in an apartment in suburban London. It is his 31st home here in the last two years. He has no bank account and no friends here. He varies his daily routine, padding the streets in high-top L.A. Gear sneakers. And the only people who know his whereabouts are his handlers at Scotland Yard and his former enemies--and now benefactors--in the African National Congress.

Coetzee's lifeline is a portable telephone. He carries no gun, and his face is well known to his enemies; his best protection is a thorough knowledge of how Pretoria's political assassins operate and his own sixth sense. "This little guy on my shoulder tells me when danger is coming," he said.

Many powerful people in the South African security establishment would like, in their argot, to "take out" Coetzee, partly out of spite but also as a warning to others who might be thinking of blowing their own whistles.

Someone tried to kill him a year ago with a bomb hidden in a tape player wrapped in a parcel addressed to Coetzee. The bomb killed his attorney instead. The operation bore the signature of his old police unit.

Then they tried again in April, according to secret government documents that were declassified and presented recently to a Johannesburg court. British authorities arrested two South African agents, who were questioned for four days and then deported with a stern warning to the Pretoria government.

The evidence of official police and army hit squads--a so-called "Third Force"--grows daily. And it has undermined De Klerk's credibility as leader of negotiations with the black majority and has reminded South Africans just how difficult reconciliation will be in their beleaguered nation.

So far, De Klerk has been unable to put a stop to the illegal activities of his security forces.

No senior government official has been forced to resign. Internal investigations have come up empty-handed. None of the security officers implicated has been charged or even suspended. In fact, most have been promoted or retired with generous benefits that may have helped seal their lips.

And a new law that De Klerk forced through Parliament in October will give him wide powers to grant amnesty for all political crimes, including those committed by his own security forces, without revealing what crimes the perpetrators have committed.

"The ethic of senior accountability has disappeared from the scene in this country," said Jules Browde, one of South Africa's most respected lawyers.

Among the recent revelations in South Africa:

* Ferdi Barnard, a twice-convicted murderer, was employed by the military intelligence Directorate of Covert Collection last year to find or plant embarrassing information on ANC leaders and use it to blackmail them into becoming informers. Among other things, Barnard attempted to recruit white prostitutes to sleep with black ANC leaders.

Barnard claims that he is being used as a government scapegoat to shield high-ranking officials from scrutiny.

* Barnard and two other former security agents also have been named in a Johannesburg court inquest into the May, 1989, assassination of David Webster, a prominent white sociologist and anti-apartheid campaigner. At the time, the three men were members of the shadowy Civil Cooperation Bureau, a secret army unit responsible for plotting dirty tricks against government opponents.

Witnesses at the Webster inquest have testified that Barnard boasted of killing the professor. Barnard denies any role in the killing.

* Under a covert scheme known as Project Echoes, military intelligence agents tried to discredit the ANC through a South Africa-funded newspaper in neighboring Botswana and, later, by planting stories in the media linking the ANC's armed wing to the Irish Republican Army.

But some of the most damning evidence since De Klerk was elected president emerged recently in a Johannesburg inquest into the 1991 death of Bheki Mlangeni, Coetzee's lawyer who was killed by the bomb intended for his client.

A few months before Mlangeni's death, Coetzee had exposed the existence of a secret police dirty-tricks unit at Vlakplaas, a farm west of Pretoria. That unit, under Coetzee's command in the early 1980s, used former ANC guerrillas in a brutal campaign against ANC supporters.

The government said Coetzee was just a renegade cop with a vivid imagination, one bad apple in a sun-kissed barrel. But today, Coetzee's litany of death and destruction is being viewed with more seriousness by judges, attorneys and his worried former colleagues in the police force.

By his own count, Coetzee participated in 27 operations against government opponents, on orders from the highest levels of the police department.

In one operation, Coetzee and his men set fire to a house in the Eastern Cape. They missed their ANC target but killed his 10-year-old son.

On another occasion, Coetzee and his men used poison from the police forensics chief to try to kill Sizwe Kondile, an ANC operative whom they had arrested. When three doses of the poison failed to kill Kondile, they gave him knockout drops and, using a Makarov pistol with a silencer, shot him in the head.

"We built a barbecue and broke out the beers," Coetzee said. "It takes almost a whole night for a body to burn."

Coetzee's most infamous operation, though, was the 1981 slaying of Griffiths Mxenge, a black lawyer and ANC sympathizer in Durban. Coetzee's account has been supported by two former black members of the Vlakplaas unit.

Mxenge was stabbed more than 40 times and struck over the head. The police took his watch and wallet to make it look like a robbery. Coetzee was waiting for the assassins when they returned.

"Mxenge put up a hard fight," he remembered being told. Coetzee was later congratulated by his superiors for a job well done.

Coetzee's detailed admissions, which he has transferred into a 136-page report, prompted the government to issue a warrant for his arrest. But some of his former colleagues weren't content to allow the law to take its course.

In August, 1990, a parcel was mailed from Johannesburg to Coetzee in Lusaka, Zambia, where he was seeking the protection of the ANC. Mlangeni, his Johannesburg attorney, was listed on the parcel as the sender.

When the parcel arrived in Lusaka, Coetzee went to the post office to collect it. But he didn't have the $24 duty. He also was suspicious. His attorney had not told him to expect a parcel. And he told ANC officials that he suspected a bomb.

Coetzee's suspicions never reached Mlangeni, though. A few months later, the Zambian authorities returned the parcel to Mlangeni's law firm in Johannesburg. He opened it in his home in Soweto.

Inside was a portable cassette player and a tape with the notation "hit squad evidence." When he put the earphones on and pressed the "play" button, small bombs hidden in both earphones exploded. He died instantly.

Now Coetzee lives in a second-story furnished flat in London, down the block from a suburban police station. The ANC pays his $1,200 monthly rent, in cash and in advance. Every few days, two or three Scotland Yard detectives stop by to see him. And, for security reasons, only one man in the ANC's London office knows Coetzee's whereabouts.

Coetzee is a solidly built 47-year-old with close-cropped graying hair, an infectious smile and a rugged, friendly face. He is something of a mystery to the ANC. He frankly admits to killing ANC operatives, in a manner that suggests he enjoyed it. But, at the same time, he speaks with respect and admiration for the ANC, which he has since joined.

"I'm not an angel," Coetzee admitted in a series of recent interviews with The Times. Speaking in English with a heavy Afrikaans accent, he added: "I can never justify what I did. But I was born into apartheid. We were taught that blacks weren't equal to us. . . . They weren't God's people. We were God's people.

"In those days, I was very proud of what I did," he said. "We were fighting communism. Now I realize it was ridiculous. Killing people. And for what? Just because they were trying to get the vote. It's unbelievable that we did that."

Coetzee desperately wants to return to South Africa, and he speaks longingly of the back-yard barbecues, or braais , and the rugby matches. He says he's ready to stand trial for his deeds, just as long as his colleagues are forced into court too.

"I hate these blokes who are hunting me down," he said. "I feel like I'm on the moon here. I'm the only chap who has spoken the truth."

The government assassinations and dirty tricks will end, Coetzee believes, only when the truth emerges. "My worry is that if they get away with it now, they might try again," he said. "In 10 years, they will still be boasting about what they did."

A few months ago, Coetzee sent a one-sentence letter to De Klerk and his old police commanders. Borrowing a well-known Afrikaans expression, he wrote, "Although the lies may run fast, the truth hunts them down in the end."

The inquest into the death of Coetzee's lawyer has failed to find the culprit. Coetzee blames Lt. Col. Eugene de Kock, who now heads Coetzee's old Vlakplaas unit.

De Kock already is linked to an attempt on Coetzee's life, which is outlined in the once-secret internal documents released recently by the South African Defense Force in court. Last April, Gen. George Meiring, the army chief of staff, signed an order sending two agents, Capt. Pamela du Randt and Leon Flores, to London. Their mission: to plant a story in the British press about alleged cooperation between the ANC's military wing and the Irish Republican Army.

The South African government authorized $7,000 for the job, a figure that included a $450 "change-of-season" clothing allowance for Du Randt, code-named "Olga." But the army contends that Flores had his own agenda, sponsored by De Kock of Coetzee's old police unit. Flores testified that De Kock, apparently with the permission of De Kock's superiors, had given him $3,500 to take to London.

British authorities say Flores gave it to the Ulster Freedom Fighters, an IRA rival in Northern Ireland, to pay for surveillance on Coetzee. And the British say Flores made a deal with the Irish nationalists--more money, plastic explosives and night-vision equipment in exchange for a hit on Coetzee.

Flores and Du Randt have admitted to meeting a group of men in Northern Ireland. And although they say their mission was to expose an IRA-ANC link, they did not contact any reporters.

The pair was arrested, questioned and later deported.

The British authorities, in a secret memo summarized by the South African security forces, said they did not want to embarrass De Klerk's government by going public. But they demanded a full explanation, saying they could not ignore the South African agents' "involvement with Irish terrorist groups and their planning of a murder to take place on the streets of London."

Military investigators contend that Du Randt was an unwitting accomplice in a plot engineered outside the army, by the police. Flores was fired shortly after his return from London. But both had violated what Coetzee says is referred to in South African security circles as the "11th Commandment"--"Don't get caught."

Coetzee smelled a setup even before Du Randt and Flores came to London. His attorneys had received a letter from the South African government saying that Coetzee was welcome to return and "has nothing to fear."

"I wondered why they suddenly wanted to put me at ease," Coetzee said recently. The obvious answer: "They were going to 'take me out' and then say: 'Why would we want to kill him? We invited him home just a few weeks ago.' "

At the time, Coetzee was living in a dingy apartment just behind Selfridges department store on Oxford Street. His two teen-age sons were visiting him from South Africa, where they live with their mother.

Coetzee decided to dive deeper underground, and he took his sons to a resort in East Sussex without telling the ANC or Scotland Yard. He re-emerged two weeks later, after Du Randt and Flores left.

Coetzee has a checkered history with the police. Although he graduated first in his police college class and received several honors during his career, he was forced to retire from the force in 1986 after a departmental hearing on charges of diamond smuggling.

But his admissions and allegations, supported in almost every detail by independent investigations, have stood up well in several South African inquiries, with attorneys and judges remarking on his considerable memory.

And he remains one of the best sources of information on the security force culture. He knows how easily the police, using wiretaps and monitoring the mail, can discredit any of their critics. He used to do it.

He also knows that internal investigations are doomed to fail.

"The police cannot catch themselves," he said.

Sitting in one of his succession of safehouses, with only television to keep him company, Coetzee has had a lot of time to think about his past--and his future. He hopes one day to return to the police force, under an ANC-controlled government. Yet he worries that he will never be able to completely bury the past.

"My biggest fear is that one day I'll meet someone like the Mxenge children," he said, sipping cappuccino in a cafe near his apartment. Coetzee's unit killed Mxenge, and Coetzee said that Mxenge's wife was killed later by another police hit squad.

"What will I say to them?" he asked. "I could never forgive someone like me."

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