JOHANNESBURG-Black activists opened fire on both police and troops for the first time in Soweto, the sprawling township outside Johannesburg that is South Africa’s biggest, most volatile black urban center, police said.
The action took place as press and opposition sources protested a sweeping new decree prohibiting local and foreign reporters from filming and recording unrest, protests or security force action in the country’s most troubled areas.
As a result of the new restrictions, there were no reporters in Soweto today to witness what appear to have been two gunfights between activists and security forces.
The only information available about the clashes, in which activists allegedly fired first at a police vehicle and then at an Army patrol in the township, came from an official police announcement tonight that gave few details.
According to the announcement, a group of activists fired a number of shots at a police vehicle in Soweto this morning. The police returned the fire, but there were no casualties on either side, the announcement said.
It said that later in the day three shots were fired “out of a group of illegal gatherings” at a military patrol. The announcement added that there were 61 arrests. It gave no further details, except to say that the ages of those arrested ranged from 14 to 30.
There has been a steady increase in incidents of blacks shooting back at police during the past two weeks. It began in the mixed-race, or Colored, townships around Cape Town on Oct. 17, after police clashed with members of the small Moslem community. At least two policemen were injured in subsequent Cape Town shootings.
Last Sunday the shooting spread beyond Cape Town for the first time when black rioters opened fire on police in the small central Cape Province town of Beaufort West, wounding two policemen.
Its extension now to Soweto is potentially serious. The township, with an estimated population of nearly 2 million, is traditionally South Africa’s most volatile black center, and it has a considerable arsenal of illegal weapons in the hands of underworld gangs.
It is regarded as something of a mystery that major violence had not erupted in Soweto during the past 15 months, but there have been indications lately of mounting tension there, with a growing number of isolated clashes.
Police reported two more of these clashes today, apart from the shootouts, in both, small groups of blacks allegedly attacked the police with stones.
Press and opposition political sources reacted with anger today at the new censorship restrictions, which ban all television, radio and photographic news coverage of black unrest in te country’s 38 designated emergency areas
The decree also requires print Te porters to obtain permission from local police before entering emergency areas, and authorizes the police to supervise their movements.
Journalists violating the new rules will be subject to immediate arrest and indefinite detention without charges or access to an Attomey. If they are tried and convicted of violating the rules, they could receive up to a 10year prison sentence and a $4,000 fine.
The decree, which was promulgated formally today but communicated to journalists yesterday, was issued by Law and Order Minister Louis le Grange, who said in an accompanying statement that “while the government has no intention of curtailing the right of the public to be informed of current events,” it had decided to curb the presence of television and other camera crews in unrest areas because they “proved to be a catalyst to further violence.”