Six South African political refugees spark row between South Africa and Britain

Six South Africans who have taken refuge in the British Consulate in Durban have precipitated the worst political row in years between South Africa and Britain.

Each side is accusing the other of bad faith.

The problem has been complicated by the tit-for-tat decision of the South African government to refuse to hand back to the British courts four South African nationals charged with smuggling arms from Britain to South Africa.

The four South Africans had been released from the custody of the British courts on (STR)200,000 bail (some $248,000) on condition that they returned to stand trial next month.

South Africa now claims that the British Consulate in Durban violated international law by harboring the six South African citizens. Hence, South Africa argues, it is exonerated from observing British law and returning the four alleged arms smugglers to Britain to stand trial.

There is suspicion here that the four arms smugglers were agents of the South African government. If that is so, the Durban dispute provides South Africa with a convenient pretext to prevent South Africans divulging possibly damaging information during the trial.

In a strong rebuke to Denis Worrall, the South African ambassador here, the British Foreign Office rejected any justification for South Africa's refusal to return the four alleged smugglers.

The six South Africans who have taken refuge in the Durban consulate are anti-apartheid protesters. They feel the economic and political ties between Britain and South Africa are far too cozy. So, for them, the chill in diplomatic relations is a victory in itself.

Before entering the Durban consulate, five of the six protesters had spent several weeks in jail because of their continual protests against the establishment of South Africa's new Constitution. This Constitution gives a limited political role in the South African Parliament to Indians and Coloreds, but excludes blacks.

The British have been unwilling to put the six fugitives in the consulate out on the street for fear the South African police will pick them up again - even though the South African courts had earlier overturned their detention orders and had them released.

The British authorities would welcome some modus vivendi that would enable them to extricate themselves from their current predicament - without suggesting to the world that they have surrendered their moral scruples.

The dispute has been particularly awkward and embarrassing for Britain, which has taken a global lead in advocating that diplomatic missions observe international law.

British officials are hard-pressed to think of a parallel situation in British diplomatic experience. The activists were not escaping from a mob, were not British citizens, and were not seeking political asylum such as happens in East Germany. Nor were they like the Pentecostalists in the US Embassy in Moscow who sought refuge there because they wanted to emigrate to the United States. None of these provisions, which are covered under existing diplomatic conventions, apply here.

Two reasons advanced by the lawyer representing the protesters as to why his clients took refuge in the consulate are (1) it was convenient to reach and escape detection, and (2) Britain has a moral duty to accept them.

The dilemma for Britain has been how to balance its moral concerns about apartheid with its obligations to international law.

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