Britain, South Africa at odds

Six South African dissidents holed up in the British consulate in Durban have succeeded - probably beyond their wildest dreams - in drawing world attention to South Africa's security laws.

The dissidents have helped strain relations between Britain and South Africa to the limit. There are even threats that the South African ambassador to Britain might be sent home over the row the dissidents precipitated.

The affair started in August in the run-up to elections that for the first time gave Asians and people of mixed race a limited role in government. The opposition by the United Democratic Front - of which the six dissidents are members - urged a boycott of the elections. The boycott was largely successful.

But during the election campaign, the government detained the six dissidents and one more front member under a South African security law that allows ''preventive detention'' of people the state considers are likely to ''endanger the security of the state or the maintenance of law and order.''

The front members eventually won release through the supreme court, but the state again sought their arrest. The six took refuge in the British consulate, and the South African government has charged that the British have violated international law by providing sanctuary.

In a diplomatic tit for tat, South African Foreign Minister Roelof Botha announced Sept. 24 that the country would not send to Britain four South Africans due to stand trial there today on charges of exporting arms illegally to South Africa. South Africa had previously guaranteed that the men could be sent back.

The resulting row has been in the headlines here daily. The main white opposition party in South Africa has called for Foreign Minister Botha to resign.

Britain also put pressure on the dissidents to leave the consulate. Three did so and were arrested.

It appears South Africa will not return the men. Britain has indicated it might send home South Africa's ambassador and withdraw its man from Pretoria.

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