JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — Seventeen blacks were shot and killed by South African police Thursday near the industrial center of Port Elizabeth in another sharp upsurge of racial unrest.
Thirty-six others were reported wounded, many critically, as police opened fire with pistols, rifles and shotguns at almost point-blank range while trying to halt a protest march of 3,000 to 4,000 blacks on Uitenhage, 15 miles northwest of Port Elizabeth on South Africa's southern coast.
The incident was one of the bloodiest since 69 blacks were killed 25 years ago Thursday in an anti-government protest at Sharpeville--a massacre that focused world outrage on South Africa's apartheid system of racial segregation.
Louis le Grange, South Africa's minister for law and order, told Parliament in Cape Town on Thursday that the police at Uitenhage acted strictly in self-defense after they were pelted by stones, sticks, bricks and several firebombs while trying to turn back the marchers leaving the black township of Langa.
Le Grange termed the incident "most unfortunate" and offered his condolences to the families of those killed.
To blacks, however, Uitenhage 1985 was virtually a repetition of Sharpeville 1960, and it is likely to provoke even stronger protests against apartheid. Since last August, nearly 300 blacks have died, including 15 in the Port Elizabeth area in the last 10 days, in protest against minority white rule.
"Sharpeville was an occasion when defenseless people protesting unjust laws were gunned down by panicky and undisciplined police," Dr. Nthato Motlana, a community leader in Johannesburg's black suburb of Soweto, said, recalling how police fired upon blacks protesting "pass laws" that require them to carry special permits in white areas. "This tragic incident appears to be almost identical to Sharpeville 25 years ago."
Widespread unrest was reported Thursday as blacks marked the anniversary of Sharpeville with marches and rallies, most of which the government had banned.
In Sharpeville itself, 45 miles south of Johannesburg, and in neighboring Sebokeng, the scene of many clashes with police last year, black youths stoned cars, set fire to trucks and burned tires in the streets of the two black townships. Police arrested 10 people there. More incidents were reported east of Johannesburg, in the diamond mining town of Kimberly and in several other areas around the country.
Meanwhile, more than 40,000 black miners went on strike, apparently in a wage dispute, at one of the country's largest gold mines, 65 miles southwest of Johannesburg, and the operator, Anglo-American Corp., gave them until Friday to return to work or face dismissal.
Police also reported Thursday that they had shot and killed two guerrillas of the African National Congress, arrested a third and detained five suspected supporters in a series of clashes in eastern Transvaal province this week, but gave no details of the security operation.
Black Protest Strike
In Uitenhage on Thursday, there was an almost-complete general strike by black workers in the first day of what was to be a two-day protest over the deaths of those killed last week in a three-day work stoppage at Port Elizabeth.
Versions given by police and by blacks of the Uitenhage incident differed considerably, and the controversy is certain to continue.
Le Grange told Parliament that 19 policemen, traveling in armored cars, had gone to Langa on Thursday morning to enforce a ban on funerals for three persons killed by police in earlier clashes.
The mourners, men, women and children, refused to disperse when ordered to do so and were within a mile of a white suburb, marching along a main highway, Le Grange said, when the police lieutenant in charge of the unit fired a warning shot with his pistol into the ground next to the feet of the march leader, about five yards away.
The crowd then surged forward and surrounded the police, pelting them with rocks and at least two firebombs, Le Grange said, and the police opened fire with assault rifles, shotguns and pistols. He said that only 43 rounds were reported fired, though at least 53 people were killed or wounded in the shooting.
10 Men, 7 Women Dead
Langa's black residents, speaking with Port Elizabeth newsmen, denied that they had stoned the police first and insisted that the police had opened fire without warning. The shooting continued for more than five minutes, they said, and those going to the aid of the wounded were deliberately shot.
Of those killed, 10 were men and seven were women, the police said; four were under 16 years of age. The wounded included half a dozen children, according to hospital reports.
At nightfall, Uitenhage was tense but quiet, local newsmen reported from the city.
The incident brought immediate expressions of concern from the white liberal opposition Progressive Federal Party that the violence could escalate and plunge the country into even more serious racial unrest.
Shultz Deplores Shooting
Thursday afternoon, the party leader, Frederik van Zyl Slabbert, met President Pieter W. Botha in Cape Town to urge him to restrain the police and to minimize chances for further clashes by keeping them out of black townships.
In Washington, Secretary of State George P. Shultz deplored the shootings, news agencies reported.
"I find it deplorable and I have nothing except denunciation to say for it. There's no excuse for it," he told a House subcommittee. Shultz also called South Africa's apartheid "totally repugnant" and "evil and unacceptable." But he added that the Reagan Administration believes "it is not productive to simply throw up your hands and say this system is terrible, so goodby, we leave. We have sought to be there and bring about change. . . . "