UITENHAGE, South Africa — Police opened fire on a crowd of more than 3,000 blacks today, killing 17 and wounding at least 19 as they marched from their black township to a nearby town for a memorial service for three blacks killed in rioting 10 days ago.
It was the worst such clash since the massacre of 69 blacks in Sharpeville 25 years ago today.
"Bodies were piled up on each other," one witness in Uitenhage said. "Plainly, it was cold-blooded murder." Other witnesses said that bodies, clothing and shoes littered the road and that firemen hosed blood off the corpses.
The shooting occurred as blacks throughout South Africa gathered in memory of the 69 people shot and killed in the black community of Sharpeville in 1960--the bloodiest clash in years of protests against white minority rule.
Police spokesman Steve van Rooyena said the situation in Uitenhage, an automobile manufacturing center near Port Elizabeth on the Indian Ocean, was "tense but under control" by midday.
Van Rooyena said the shooting began when 3,000 people began marching the mile from Uitenhage's black township of Langa to a nearby town.
Louis Le Grange, minister of law and order, told Parliament that the crowd, ignoring orders to disperse, advanced on a group of 19 policemen.
"The police were suddenly surrounded and pelted with stones, sticks and other missiles, including petrol bombs," Le Grange said.
Warning Shot Fired
The commanding officer fired a warning shot into the ground and when that had no effect, police opened fire, he said.
He said 11 blacks were killed on the spot from the police volley and six more died in hospitals. The government said at least 19 others were wounded.
Black witnesses said that police fired without provocation and that the marchers were merely going to a memorial service.
The witnesses said that police used tear gas and whips to disperse some groups of blacks and that after the shooting firemen hosed blood off the corpses, and police and ambulances took the dead and injured away.
'People Lying in Streets'
The Port Elizabeth Evening Post quoted one witness, butcher's shop employee Miriam Mdingi, 52, as saying: "I stood in the doorway of the butchery and saw people lying in the street. People were screaming and running past. . . . A woman came crying to me and said her son and daughter were dead."
Mono Badela, a black journalist from Johannesburg, said eyewitnesses told him that the crowd was trying to march through town to another black township, Kwanobuhle, to the funeral of three blacks killed in rioting 10 days ago. The crowd did not know the funeral had been banned by a magistrate several hours earlier, he said.
Badela said the owner of a shop 50 yards from the shootings told him that police in armored vehicles ordered the marchers to turn back, and that stoning and shooting broke out. The sequence of events was unclear, he said.
Badela said he was ordered out of Langa after police saw him conducting interviews. Kwanobuhle also was "teeming with angry youths," he said. "Tires were burning in the streets, stones were being thrown."
The journalist said the clash took place on the first day of a two-day protest strike in Uitenhage against restrictions on funerals for riot victims. He described the downtown area as deserted.