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Apartheid Spy Tied to '86 Assassination of Sweden's Palme

September 27, 1996|BOB DROGIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PRETORIA, South Africa — Eugene de Kock, a former death squad leader, dropped another courtroom bombshell Thursday by implicating an apartheid-era South African spy in the still-unsolved assassination of Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme a decade ago.

De Kock said "Operation Long Reach"--the now-defunct South African military intelligence project headed by operative Craig Williamson--"played a role" in the murder of Palme, a staunch apartheid foe.

De Kock gave no other details, but he said he had already told prosecutors what he knows.

Rumors of South African involvement have circulated for years, but De Kock's allegations apparently offer fresh leads.

"A part of the De Kock information is new," Lars Jonsson, deputy director of the police investigation in Stockholm, told the Swedish news agency TT.

Palme was shot once in the back with a .357 magnum pistol while walking home from a Stockholm cinema with his wife on Feb. 28, 1986. The lone assassin was never caught. Swedish detectives never publicly revealed any South African links to the slaying.

But Palme had been fiercely critical of apartheid and had fought to impose comprehensive trade and cultural sanctions against the white minority regime in Pretoria.

Williamson has denied involvement in Palme's murder. But he has publicly admitted parts of his life as a covert operative.

The former military intelligence major is known in headlines here as "super spy."

Williamson has said he infiltrated and informed on South African anti-apartheid groups in Europe in the 1970s, including the military wing of the then-banned African National Congress.

He returned home in 1980 after his cover was blown and soon was second-in-command of the foreign section of South Africa's security police, responsible for covert operations.

De Kock testified last week that Williamson directed the 1982 bombing of the ANC's European headquarters in London.

"Operation Long Reach" was the code name of a covert project, run by Williamson, that used a bogus security company to gather intelligence abroad for the military, especially in countries where the apartheid government was not permitted to open an embassy.

De Kock's latest, perhaps most stunning, allegation came on his sixth day of testimony for mitigation of sentence. He faces multiple life terms after his conviction last month for 89 crimes, including six murders, during his years as head of the Vlakplaas death squad, named after a grassy farm west of here that was its base.

Speaking in a monotone, De Kock has rocked South Africa with his lurid recollections of official bombings, murder, theft and perjury.

The former police colonel admitted to scores, if not hundreds, of chilling crimes in the government's dirty war.

And he invariably named more senior officials who he said had given the orders, shared in the spoils or helped hide the horrors.

"The [police commissioner], the minister, the president all helped to cover up," he said. "Without the system, we could never have escaped the consequences of our deeds."

Some key allegations, especially those involving former presidents Frederik W. de Klerk and P. W. Botha, were based on hearsay. But if the rest is even partly true, De Kock has already exposed far more detail than was ever publicly known about the apartheid state's monstrous security apparatus and those who ran it.

Jan d'Oliveira, the chief prosecutor, said in an interview Thursday that dozens of prosecutions may follow as a result.

He said investigators are trying to verify and evaluate De Kock's allegations as quickly as possible.

At least one prosecution should begin in several weeks involving "more than 30 murders," he said.

D'Oliveira declined to detail the forthcoming cases, explaining: "We have a real fear that if we speak out, witnesses or evidence will disappear."

He said the investigations may be curtailed if those named by De Kock apply for amnesty from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which is empowered to pardon those who fully confess apartheid crimes.

A commission spokesman, John Allen, said no one named by De Kock has applied for amnesty.

The Transvaal attorney general also said De Kock's infamous Vlakplaas death squad was not the worst of what now appears a nightmarish web of state-sanctioned murder and dirty tricks units. "It's been my view all along that the De Kock case was the tip of the iceberg," D'Oliveira said.

That is clearly De Kock's view.

In testimony last week, he said his team of killers was "way down on the list" of official hit squads.

"I know about other units that put [us] in the shade," he said.

He said the Directorate of Covert Collection in military intelligence and the notorious Civil Cooperation Bureau in the defense force were much larger and had committed far more murder and mayhem. Even earlier groups, such as the infamous "Z Squad" and "K Unit" in the Bureau of State Security, had a bloodier record, he said.

De Kock also alleged that cells of four to six agents were trained and deployed "at every security branch in the country" for assassinations. The dreaded security police had offices in every major town.

A woman who visits him regularly in Pretoria Central Prison said De Kock regrets that he has forgotten so much.

"I think he's trying to clear his conscience," she said. "He says he's got nothing to lose."

But in court last Thursday, De Kock said he regrets something else: "I cannot describe how contaminated and dirty I feel.

"Whatever we set out to do . . . we failed to achieve," he said. "All we succeeded in doing was to deliver dead bodies, pain and children who will never know their fathers."

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