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COLUMN ONE : S. Africa's '3rd Force' of Hit Men : The former leader of a secret police unit who once ruthlessly hunted apartheid's foes is now among the hunted, hiding out in London and running from his old colleagues.


LONDON — Capt. Dirk Coetzee once was one of South Africa's ruthless hunters, leading a secret police unit that tracked, harassed, framed, blackmailed, burned, poisoned and assassinated those who dared oppose apartheid.

Coetzee came clean, though, admitting his crimes and naming the generals who ordered them. But no one was charged, or even fired or suspended.

Now, two years later, Coetzee finds himself among the hunted, running from his old colleagues. "It's a vicious, dangerous world once you become their enemy," he said.

An attempt to assassinate Coetzee last year--and another plot this year--make clear that despite regular government denials, South African death squads and dirty-tricks campaigns have continued to operate alongside President Frederik W. de Klerk's reforms.

The man who knows too much hides out these days in an apartment in suburban London. It is his 31st home here in the last two years. He has no bank account and no friends here. He varies his daily routine, padding the streets in high-top L.A. Gear sneakers. And the only people who know his whereabouts are his handlers at Scotland Yard and his former enemies--and now benefactors--in the African National Congress.

Coetzee's lifeline is a portable telephone. He carries no gun, and his face is well known to his enemies; his best protection is a thorough knowledge of how Pretoria's political assassins operate and his own sixth sense. "This little guy on my shoulder tells me when danger is coming," he said.

Many powerful people in the South African security establishment would like, in their argot, to "take out" Coetzee, partly out of spite but also as a warning to others who might be thinking of blowing their own whistles.

Someone tried to kill him a year ago with a bomb hidden in a tape player wrapped in a parcel addressed to Coetzee. The bomb killed his attorney instead. The operation bore the signature of his old police unit.

Then they tried again in April, according to secret government documents that were declassified and presented recently to a Johannesburg court. British authorities arrested two South African agents, who were questioned for four days and then deported with a stern warning to the Pretoria government.

The evidence of official police and army hit squads--a so-called "Third Force"--grows daily. And it has undermined De Klerk's credibility as leader of negotiations with the black majority and has reminded South Africans just how difficult reconciliation will be in their beleaguered nation.

So far, De Klerk has been unable to put a stop to the illegal activities of his security forces.

No senior government official has been forced to resign. Internal investigations have come up empty-handed. None of the security officers implicated has been charged or even suspended. In fact, most have been promoted or retired with generous benefits that may have helped seal their lips.

And a new law that De Klerk forced through Parliament in October will give him wide powers to grant amnesty for all political crimes, including those committed by his own security forces, without revealing what crimes the perpetrators have committed.

"The ethic of senior accountability has disappeared from the scene in this country," said Jules Browde, one of South Africa's most respected lawyers.

Among the recent revelations in South Africa:

* Ferdi Barnard, a twice-convicted murderer, was employed by the military intelligence Directorate of Covert Collection last year to find or plant embarrassing information on ANC leaders and use it to blackmail them into becoming informers. Among other things, Barnard attempted to recruit white prostitutes to sleep with black ANC leaders.

Barnard claims that he is being used as a government scapegoat to shield high-ranking officials from scrutiny.

* Barnard and two other former security agents also have been named in a Johannesburg court inquest into the May, 1989, assassination of David Webster, a prominent white sociologist and anti-apartheid campaigner. At the time, the three men were members of the shadowy Civil Cooperation Bureau, a secret army unit responsible for plotting dirty tricks against government opponents.

Witnesses at the Webster inquest have testified that Barnard boasted of killing the professor. Barnard denies any role in the killing.

* Under a covert scheme known as Project Echoes, military intelligence agents tried to discredit the ANC through a South Africa-funded newspaper in neighboring Botswana and, later, by planting stories in the media linking the ANC's armed wing to the Irish Republican Army.

But some of the most damning evidence since De Klerk was elected president emerged recently in a Johannesburg inquest into the 1991 death of Bheki Mlangeni, Coetzee's lawyer who was killed by the bomb intended for his client.

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