Former South African Official, 19 Others, Tried for Massacre

IN the first blockbuster trial of the post-apartheid era, South Africa's former defense minister and 19 others pleaded innocent yesterday to charges of masterminding a political massacre.

Magnus Malan and the other defendants, who include former top military leaders, are the most senior officials charged with political crimes under apartheid so far. The group allegedly planned and carried out the 1987 attack on the house of anti-apartheid activist Victor Ntuli. The attack killed 13 of Mr. Ntuli's friends and relatives, but Ntuli himself was not home at the time.

One by one, the defendants stood, identified themselves, and proclaimed themselves innocent. Prosecutor Tim McNally, the attorney general in KwaZulu-Natal province, called the case ''a process of truth and justice'' to eliminate ''a corner of our history which has hitherto been dark and secret.'' Mr. McNally rejected the likely defense of General Malan and other former military leaders - that they cannot be held responsible for the actions of people they helped train. ''The owner of a vicious bulldog who unleashes it on a crowd cannot be heard to lament the fact that it savages a young child,'' McNally said.

According to the indictment and supporting court papers, Malan and other military leaders worked with the Zulu nationalist Inkatha Freedom Party to set up a hit squad that operated in the traditional Zulu homeland against supporters of the African National Congress.

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