JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — Police fired volley after volley of tear-gas grenades on Thursday to rout thousands of blacks attempting to hold a mass funeral in Soweto for 24 people killed in the sprawling black ghetto outside Johannesburg last week in clashes with police.
Defying a police ban on the funeral, more than 5,000 mourners led by local clergymen gathered Thursday morning at a sports stadium near Soweto's riot-torn White City district, according to the government's Bureau for Information, but they were quickly dispersed by riot police using tear gas.
When the mourners regrouped a mile away at St. Paul's Anglican Church in White City, they were again dispersed with tear gas, according to senior clergymen who were present. Another service at the nearby Regina Mundi Catholic Cathedral was also disrupted.
Twelve of the coffins were then carried to Soweto's Avalon Cemetery, the clergymen said, but the procession was disrupted by canisters of tear gas dropped from two helicopters hovering overhead, causing the mourners to drop the coffins and flee.
Fifteen of the unrest victims were eventually buried at Avalon, according to the clergymen, but the mass funeral, which the government feared would turn into a political rally and further inflame emotions in Soweto, was never held. Families of the other victims said they will try again to hold a joint funeral in a few days.
Thousands of militant black youths, reinforced by groups of so-called "comrades" from other areas, took to the streets of Soweto throughout Thursday in angry protests against the police action last week and against the banning of the mass funeral--a prohibition ruled invalid by a court Thursday.
Many other ugly scenes occurred, but they may not be reported under stringent new government regulations that prohibit newsmen from covering unrest firsthand and from describing any "security activities" without official permission. The day was one of the most chaotic the densely populated ghetto city has experienced in two years of civil unrest here.
"People are very angry," said Anglican Bishop Simeon Nkoane, who was to have led the funeral service. "I have never seen them so angry. . . . Many more people could die before we are able to bury these."
Barricades of burning tires, wrecked cars, large boulders and trash bins were set up on most streets in western Soweto. Police patrols entering these "no-go" areas were stoned. Firebombs made from gasoline-filled bottles with lighted wicks were thrown at some patrols as well as at trucks and buses on some of Soweto's main roads. The government's Information Bureau confirmed there were numerous incidents of unrest, but provided no details.
Police repeatedly resorted to tear gas to disperse the youths, who gathered in crowds as large as 300, according to the Information Bureau, and arrested eight people after one firebombing.
"All Soweto has been declared an unrest area," Brig. Gideon P. Laubscher, the regional police commander, said as the violence spread.
5 Reported Killed
A mortuary attendant told newsmen that five people, including a child, were killed in the clashes, but the Information Bureau said it was told by police that "investigations could not at this stage determine whether any deaths resulted from unrest-related incidents."
The only confirmed death was that of a black woman killed when she fell in front of a train at a Soweto commuter station while fleeing youths with whips who were enforcing a protest strike called by Soweto workers.
Militant youths had called on workers to remain at home Thursday to protest the police action last week, and they attacked many of those ignoring this call as they left for work Thursday morning, according to Soweto residents. Some of those who did go to work were assaulted when they returned home in the evening, residents said.
Workers Stay Home
About 85% of retail employees and 72% of industrial workers from Soweto stayed away from their jobs, according to the independent Labor Monitoring Group here. Most commuter buses were withdrawn from Soweto after some were stoned, and trains were only a third full.
The trouble began in Soweto last week when municipal authorities evicted some families from their homes for participating in a three-month-old, township-wide rent strike that has left the City Council nearly bankrupt. Residents say that police used tear gas to break up neighborhood meetings to discuss more threatened evictions, and that youths then barricaded streets as part of local "defense plans."
Police say that one of their patrols was ambushed at a barricade in White City and four policemen were injured by a grenade thrown at them. The patrol then opened fire with rifles and shotguns, killing at least seven people. More were killed in later incidents as the clashes continued through the night.