JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — Only one stone had been thrown when South African police opened fire on a crowd of 4,000 blacks and killed 19 two weeks ago, the commander of the police unit testified Monday at a judicial inquiry into the incident.
Lt. John W. Fouche also said that, contrary to earlier government accounts, no firebombs had been thrown at the two armored police cars, nor had they been surrounded by the crowd and unable to retreat.
Fouche ordered his men to fire, he explained, because he believed the crowd would quickly overrun his position on the road to Uitenhage, near Port Elizabeth on the country's southern coast, and then attack a white suburb of the city about a mile away.
'On Way to Kill People'
"I believed that my men and I would definitely be overrun and killed if I did not give the order to fire," Fouche told the inquiry at Uitenhage. "Also, I had gained the impression that the crowd was on its way to the (white) residential area of Uitenhage, that they were on their way to kill people."
Black residents of Langa, a township outside Uitenhage, have said they were on their way to funerals for victims of earlier unrest in another township, Kwanobuhle, and had to pass through white areas of Uitenhage. The police opened fire without warning or provocation, blacks have charged--although the government had ordered the funerals postponed the night before.
When a woman whom he described as "bare-breasted" and "dancing about" threw the first stone at the armored cars, "I realized here was trouble and shouted 'Fire!' immediately," Fouche said. "I expected there to be more stones."
Fouche said he personally shot and wounded a man he saw ready to throw another stone. He added that he had also fired a warning shot into the ground next to the feet of the march leader.
Most of the crowd was within five to seven yards of the armored cars, and at least 55 people were hit, including the 19 fatally wounded.
Road Filled With Bodies
Fouche said he ordered a cease-fire after the crowd turned and began to flee. By then, the road was filled with bodies.
The incident March 21 was one of the bloodiest since South African police opened fire in 1960 on a group of protesting blacks at Sharpeville, 25 years to the day of the events at Uitenhage.
The shooting has touched off new black unrest around Port Elizabeth, a major industrial center, and in many other parts of the country. It has also created a political controversy over the government's policies and its commitment to reform South Africa's apartheid system of racial segregation.
Fouche's testimony and that of police Warrant Officer Jacobus W. Pentz, whose armored car was the first on the scene, contradicted the account that Louis le Grange, the minister of law and order, gave Parliament. Le Grange's critics have accused him of deliberately giving a false account of what happened at Uitenhage.
Conflicts in Reports
Questioned by attorneys for the townspeople at Langa and the white, liberal opposition Progressive Federal Party, Fouche and Pentz have acknowledged that:
--Only a single stone had been thrown when they opened fire, and that they had not first been bombarded, as Le Grange said, by stones, sticks, bricks and several firebombs.
--No firebombs--gasoline-filled bottles with flaming rags as fuses--were thrown or seen or found afterward, contrary to Le Grange's statement to Parliament.
--Police were not surrounded and unable to retreat, as Le Grange said, but chose to make a stand when and where they did to prevent the crowd from getting closer to the white suburb.
--The leader of the crowd, described by Le Grange as dressed in black, did not have a brick in his hand, as the Cabinet officer said. Black witnesses said their leader was a minister and that he had a Bible in his hand.
In addition, Fouche testified that his men, although assigned to riot duty in anticipation of trouble at Langa, were issued only live ammunition for weapons and not the tear gas, rubber bullets and birdshot normally used to disperse crowds here.
Fouche also said he did not know who was in command in Uitenhage that day because of the confusion at police headquarters there caused by the growing unrest. "We operated on our own," he said.
The area around Port Elizabeth and Uitenhage, the focus of unrest for the last month, was relatively quiet Monday, according to police, but scattered incidents were reported in other areas of Cape province and the Orange Free State as police used tear gas to disperse crowds burning local government offices.
Troops have now been deployed in eastern Cape province, mostly around Port Elizabeth and Uitenhage, to assist the police in maintaining order and protecting federal business districts, industrial areas and white suburbs, the Defense Ministry said Monday. Soldiers have been used increasingly in such duties over the last six months.