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Unsolved Bombings Stir Fear in S. Africa

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Imagine a bomb explodes on a Sunday afternoon at a packed beachfront restaurant in Malibu, bloodying dozens of sunbathers and ripping the leg off a 16-year-old waitress working her first shift of the summer.

Imagine a bomb explodes after midnight at a jammed club in West Hollywood, injuring nine people, including a gay man whose heel is severed from his foot. Then, on Christmas Eve, another bomb strikes the same neighborhood, severing the leg of a 24-year-old policewoman.

Finally, imagine authorities apprehend an “armed and dangerous” suspect after an intense nationwide manhunt, only to acknowledge later that his greatest crimes include stealing microwave ovens.

Change the scene to Cape Town’s trendy Camps Bay suburb and the gay enclave of Green Point and you get a sense of the fright and frustration gripping South Africa’s favorite playground by the sea.

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Urban terrorism is not unique to Cape Town. But with sub-Saharan Africa’s best-attended New Year’s Eve celebrations only days away, authorities here have the ignoble distinction of having been unable to catch anyone responsible for a 16-month reign of terror.

At least 10 unsolved blasts--beginning with the deadly bombing of a Planet Hollywood restaurant in the city’s popular Waterfront shopping and entertainment district in August 1998--have kept investigators running in circles in a desperate, but fruitless, chase for culprits.

Police say many of the blasts may be related. Most of the explosions have involved homemade pipe bombs, and top government officials have hinted about the involvement of a local group of Muslim fundamentalists, though they offer no proof. The possible link has given the bombers an aura of invincibility and a phantom quality of moving about town undetected, choosing victims and locations at will.

“I cannot guarantee that no more bombs will explode,” Western Cape police official Ganief Daniels told a meeting of business leaders well before the most recent blast. “The bombers can strike again this weekend.”

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Residents Speculate About Future Attacks

Summer season in the Southern Hemisphere is entering high gear this month. Nowhere is Africa’s tradition of getaway holidays at Christmas and New Year’s greater than here. This summer, there are more than two dozen official parties and public extravaganzas scheduled to mark the passing of 1999. About 200,000 guests from around the world are reportedly booked in December and January.

But the bombings last month at St. Elmo’s pizzeria in Camps Bay and the Blah Bar in Green Point--followed by the Christmas Eve blast in a trash can outside a Green Point restaurant--have zapped this fun-loving city of much of its spunk. Amid the buzz about who will be where on New Year’s Eve, residents and visitors are wondering about something else: Who and where will be next?

“I am expecting more bombs in Cape Town,” said Glyn Delaney, co-owner of the Blah Bar, which recently reopened after the Nov. 7 attack destroyed its rear lounge. “The police don’t know what they are doing or even who they are looking for.”

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It is a favorite pastime in South Africa to complain about police incompetence, but even the authorities here acknowledge the recent bombings caught them off guard and have amounted to a huge embarrassment.

The arrest of 26-year-old Deon Mostert, initially linked by Western Cape province police to the November bombings, was so bungled that National Police Commissioner George Fivaz called a news conference in Pretoria to counter his own department’s claims about the man.

Fivaz alleged that Mostert, an erstwhile police informant, is a chronic liar and thief of household appliances--but not a bombing mastermind. Mostert is being held for driving a stolen vehicle.

It is not the first time that authorities have come up empty-handed. Despite early leads, police still have not cracked the Planet Hollywood case. Two people were killed and 26 injured in the blast. Police also have run into dead ends in the investigation of a Waterfront parking lot bombing on Jan. 1 of this year and five other blasts in public places, including two police stations.

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If statistics are included from gang warfare in the Cape Flats--authorities estimate there were 79 gang-related bombings last year--the record appears even grimmer.

“People are annoyed with what is happening, but they are too afraid to come forward as witnesses,” said Capt. Neville Malila, spokesman for Operation Good Hope, a special police unit created this year to fight urban terrorism. “A bomb blast is not the easiest of investigations, especially when the element lacking is witnesses.”

With the investigations in disarray, authorities are moving to restore public confidence by deploying 200 soldiers in Camps Bay and other tourist destinations and summoning 200 police officers from across the country as reinforcements. Random roadblocks are being erected and merchants are being given crash courses in bomb detection.

On Victoria Road, the palm-lined thoroughfare in Camps Bay, armored military vehicles rumble past curbside umbrellas and cafe tables. Soldiers sift through garbage cans and make surprise inspections in shops and restaurants. “We have to reclaim our city and say to these bombers, ‘You are living on time bombs yourself,’ ” said Sheryl Ozinsky, manager of Cape Town Tourism, the city’s tourism agency. “Crime and tourism are on the same balance sheet. There are cities that have been deleted from the world tourism map after acts of violence.”

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Some Detectives Resort to Using Bodyguards

Critics say it is no small wonder that witnesses are reluctant to come forward when the police have difficulty protecting their own. Police stations are patrolled by private security guards, and some high-profile detectives have used bodyguards since a Western Cape investigator was gunned down in January.

The Christmas Eve blast, police say, was also a setup. An anonymous caller warned police that a bomb had been planted outside a Green Point restaurant; when officers arrived, the device was detonated by remote control.

“We will leave no stone unturned to ensure these bastards are put away,” Safety and Security Minister Steve Tshwete told reporters after visiting the blast scene on Christmas Day.

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Doubters abound. Many people interviewed in Camps Bay refused to disclose their names to a reporter, saying they were afraid to draw attention. Others simply closed their doors.

Irma Hugo, a Camps Bay mother of two toddlers, said residents are trying to get on with their lives, but there is an air of uncertainty because no one has figured out the motive for the blasts.

Until the Blah Bar and St. Elmo’s blasts, police say, they were making headway in putting a lid on acts of urban terrorism. There have been several high-profile arrests and convictions this year of gangsters associated with a militant wing of a Muslim fundamentalist group, People Against Gangsterism and Drugs, or PAGAD.

The 3-year-old organization, formed to combat crime in the Cape Flats, is now regarded by authorities as the primary source of criminality in the region. The group’s leaders insist they have no connection to the bombings and other acts of violence; they say their members are being set up by corrupt police. But attendance at PAGAD rallies has dropped significantly in the past year amid the bad publicity and as supporters have been implicated in killings.

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In the latest case, PAGAD supporter Dawood Osman was sentenced two weeks ago to 32 years in prison for driving the getaway car last year in a drive-by shooting at the Waterfront. Four people were killed and two seriously injured in the assault.

Police say they are investigating PAGAD involvement in the recent pipe bombings, but they acknowledge they are acting only on a hunch and have established no links.

“We would not be surprised if the police try to cover up this one as well by arresting one or more PAGAD members,” PAGAD spokesman Cassiem Parker told reporters Saturday.

As the investigation progresses at a painstakingly slow pace, police are frantically trying to stay one step ahead of the bombers. Malila, the special unit captain, said authorities have held brainstorming sessions about what could go wrong on New Year’s Eve--ranging from a hostage drama aboard the cable car at Table Mountain to gridlock blocking police access to another Waterfront attack.

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Malila said police have identified eight hot spots in the city and have developed contingency plans for each.

Delaney, the Blah Bar owner, said the plans offer little comfort to many in Cape Town. She is expecting 7,000 people at a New Year’s Eve bash to be hosted by the bar in a nearby lot.

Security at the event, Delaney said, will be heavy.

“Statistically, they say it won’t happen to us twice,” she said. “But no one can tell us why it is happening at all.”

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