Pretoria's unjust attacks

SOUTH Africa's military attacks on targets in three neighboring countries -- Botswana, Zambia, and Zimbabwe -- cannot be justified under rules of international law. The condemnation that has been expressed by much of the world community, including the United States and Britain, is warranted. The three governments involved have been conscientiously seeking a diplomatic solution to South African tensions. The lightning strikes -- which, according to South Africa, were directed against terrorist camps of the African National Congress (ANC), the main guerrilla group fighting the white-led South African government -- cannot be excused on the grounds of ``fighting terrorism,'' or justified, as Pretoria is attempting, by comparison with the US air strikes against Libya.

As we have noted in these columns, the US air strikes raised disturbing questions in themselves. But suffice it to say at this point that in the case of the South African raids, this was no instance of Pretoria's engaging in ``hot pursuit'' of fleeing guerrilla or terrorist forces returning to their home base after the guerrilla forces had just committed terrorist acts. Nor is the ANC necessarily the direct ``agent'' of the three neighboring governments involved. Indeed, there have been no major cross-border raids recently by ANC forces.

One unfortunate casualty of the South African assaults could well be a seven-nation Commonwealth peace effort aimed at bringing Pretoria and the ANC to the conference table.

The South African attacks raise troubling new implications about the increasing willingness of nations to justify their own intemperate actions by claiming that they are merely dealing with the misdeeds of others.

It would be tragic if the world community were to enter a period where vigilante action became a norm. Sovereign nations should not have to find themselves subject to invasion by other countries that might harbor some particular grievance. After all, if your neighbor is giving you difficulty, you surely don't have a right to enter his house and rip the furniture apart.

In the case of South Africa, terrorism, from the African National Congress or other militant groups, is not the issue. The basic problem is South Africa's policy of apartheid. The raids apparently represent an attempt by Pretoria to appease critics from its own right wing who are concerned that the government of President Pieter W. Botha is moving too quickly toward some type of racial accommodation -- a ``haste'' that is hardly discernible to its critics.

South Africa's boast that its attacks were carried out with ``surgical'' precision cannot be comforting to those civilians caught in the cross fire.

Washington and the global community must be firm in letting Pretoria know that such raids are not to be tolerated.

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