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S. Africa Cautiously Supports Afghan Attacks - 2001-10-09

The South African government has come out in support of the U.S.-led attacks against Taleban military installations in Afghanistan. South African officials are also trying to figure out what to do about two alleged terrorist organizations based in South Africa.

South African deputy Foreign Minister Aziz Pahad cautiously backed the use of force by U.S. and British troops against the Taleban. He told reporters South Africa welcomes assurances that U.S. and British troops will target only military installations and terrorist camps, and will avoid using indiscriminate force against civilians in Afghanistan.

Mr. Pahad says South Africa is satisfied that this is a war on terrorism, not a war on Islam.

"We are confident that the world generally, and the United States specifically, has been on record as saying that this is not a clash of civilizations, this is a fight against terrorism," he said. "Terrorism knows no religion, no culture, no language."

That distinction is very important for the South African government. The country has a large Muslim population, and there is vocal opposition among both Muslims and non-Muslims to the U.S.-led campaign.

Mr. Pahad's news conference was the first formal statement the government has made on the matter since the military action began. He said there are implications for South Africa from a recent U.N. resolution requiring governments to crack down on activities linked to international terrorism.

The United States has named two groups based in Cape Town as terrorist organizations. They are known as Qibla and PAGAD, short for People Against Gangsterism and Drugs.

The government is trying to decide how to handle its obligations under the U.N. resolution. Neither Qibla nor PAGAD is currently banned under South African law.

Both groups are blamed for a rash of bombings, assassinations and other crimes in the late 1990s. Police have arrested many of their members recently. There have been no major incidents in the past year.

But three PAGAD members remain on the loose after staging a daring and carefully planned prison break last week. There are unconfirmed reports that Qibla is planning some kind of retaliation against U.S. targets in South Africa. And other reports say another Cape Town-based group is recruiting South Africans to go to Afghanistan to help the Taleban fight against U.S. and British troops.

Mr. Pahad repeated earlier warnings that South African law prohibits mercenary activity. He acknowledged that he cannot actually stop anybody from getting on a plane to Afghanistan, but he vowed that the government will prosecute anybody who breaks the law.

"So in terms of this, any South Africans who are contemplating participating in one form or another in support of the call for a jihad made by the al-Qaida movement, will have to understand that they are going against the law of this country and also U.N. resolutions," he said.

Despite the reports, Mr. Pahad insists there has been no groundswell of support for the Taleban among South African Muslims. But clearly there is opposition to the use of force. A group of both Christian and Muslim religious organizations is planning a march on the U.S. consulate in Cape Town.

Keith Benjamin heads the Western Province Council of Churches. He spoke to South African state radio about their reasons for the protest.

"Through this action, we are asking them to stop further attacks in Afghanistan because war solves absolutely nothing," he said. "And the course of using the courts of justice as a means of finding a person guilty or innocent is the one they should be using."

Perhaps with that point in mind, Mr. Pahad told reporters the fight against terrorism is long-term. He said it includes military, legal, economic, political, and diplomatic means. And he said to defeat terrorism, the world must deal with its root causes.