Pretoria avoids clash with US on activists

The South African government said yesterday that three black detainees who sought refuge in the United States consulate here Tuesday could go free - an apparent attempt to keep the incident from further straining relations with the US. The activists escaped on Tuesday from a Johannesburg hospital, where they had been taken for physiotherapy. Counted among the top anti-apartheid leaders, they include two officials of the banned United Democratic Front, Mohammed Valli-Moosa and Murphy Morobe, and Vusimuzi Khanyile, chairman of the National Education Crisis Committee, which has also, effectively, been banned.

Mr. Khanyile has been detained without trial since December 1986; Messrs. Valli-Moosa and Morobe since July 1987. In a statement distributed by their lawyer, they said they sought to highlight the plight of ``hundreds of other detainees. ...''

They demanded to be free of restrictions or the threat of re-detention, and called on the government to lift its 26-month-old state of emergency and release detainees.

Yesterday, Foreign Affairs Minister Roelof Botha said the three could go free. A Law and Order Ministry spokesman elaborated further: ``Their release already was under consideration when they escaped. The moment they escaped, we decided we wouldn't even hunt for them.''

As of press time, the three activists had not yet left the consulate, and their lawyer said he could not comment on the government's offer as he had not seen it. A US spokesman said the three will not be forced to leave the consulate.

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