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S. Africa Killer Repeats Palme Claim

Hearing: Hit man for apartheid says he got 'firsthand information' that a fellow assassin had a hand in Swedish premier's death.

September 28, 1996|BOB DROGIN and MARY WILLIAMS WALSH | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — With his buck teeth and giant girth, Craig Williamson was described in a newspaper here last year as having the "amiable appearance of an overweight Bugs Bunny."

But his long career as a secret agent for the apartheid regime was no joke. He has admitted to bombings that killed two women and a young girl in London, Angola and Mozambique, and to running covert operations to spread disinformation and collect intelligence in Washington and elsewhere.

The question now is whether Williamson, 47, also had a hand in the 1986 assassination of Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme in Stockholm, as alleged by Eugene de Kock, Williamson's former friend and fellow assassin in the South African security police.

Friday, De Kock told a court in Pretoria, South Africa's administrative capital, that he was given "firsthand information" in 1992 or 1993 of Williamson's supposed role in the still-unsolved slaying of the Swedish leader. He did not elaborate.

De Kock first implicated Williamson on Thursday, again without providing any details, while testifying to seek leniency for six murders and scores of other crimes he has been convicted of committing as head of a police death squad.

He said Friday that he had not mentioned the assassination earlier because he had forgotten it.

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But South African and Swedish authorities said they plan to investigate De Kock's information to see if it is reliable. Investigators and prosecutors from the two countries will meet next week to discuss procedures.

"We're taking it very seriously," said Charlotte Wrangberg, a diplomat at the Swedish Embassy in Pretoria. "The police say there might be some new elements."

She said the embassy had requested a transcript of De Kock's courtroom comments and any related evidence he has privately given to prosecutors. She said police in Stockholm may send detectives to interview him.

For his part, Williamson vehemently denied any role in Palme's killing.

"It's crazy. It's enough to answer for what we did, but this is absurd," he told the Reuters news agency in Luanda, the capital of Angola, where he reportedly has interests in the freewheeling diamond trade.

Williamson said he first publicly denied responsibility for Palme's death six years ago, when a Swedish newspaper named him as a suspect.

He said De Kock "either has a hidden agenda or, if he actually believes what he is saying, then he is nuts."

He added: "This is a nightmare. I am trying to get on with my life."

In Sweden, where Palme's slaying marked the clear end of an era of innocence, news of possible fresh leads created a sensation.

"It's a big story in Sweden. We have nine pages [on Palme] in the paper today," Magnus Ringman, a political reporter for the Aftonbladet newspaper, said Friday.

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The Palme assassination spawned countless conspiracy theories, and allegations of an apartheid link are not new. South African President Nelson Mandela reportedly lamented possible South African complicity in a 1990 meeting with Palme's widow. And numerous articles in the Swedish press have focused on Williamson.

"Craig Williamson, and his whereabouts in Sweden shortly before the murder, have been known to us for several years," said Jan Danielsson, a Swedish federal prosecutor working with the police investigative commission.

According to various unconfirmed reports, Williamson crossed into Sweden from Denmark by ferry, in the company of a two-man commando squad, shortly before the killing on a downtown Stockholm street on Feb. 28, 1986.

The reports say Williamson's group traveled in a Volkswagen minibus--thereby evading detection or surveillance in hotels--and, one week before the assassination, attended a big rally at which Palme spoke against apartheid.

The Swedish police ultimately accused Christer Pettersson, an emotionally troubled Swede who had been identified by Palme's wife. He was convicted of the assassination, but the verdict was later overturned on appeal.

Danielsson said police initially considered a South African motive for the slaying. Palme was fervently opposed to apartheid, and his Social Democrats openly supported Mandela's then-banned African National Congress.

Further, Sweden was the leading donor to an anti-apartheid group called the International University Exchange Fund. Williamson had become deputy director of the Geneva-based fund after supposedly "fleeing" South Africa in 1976. He was, in fact, a paid police agent.

Swedish journalist Anders Hasselbohm, who has investigated the case, says the fund operated as a front to channel Swedish financing for the anti-apartheid movement.

"South Africa saw this as very hostile," Hasselbohm said. "That's why they sent Williamson to infiltrate this organization."

Williamson was soon so trusted that Swedish officials gave him bags full of cash to deliver back to South Africa, Hasselbohm said.

Hasselbohm said he has evidence that Williamson diverted at least some of the money to the South African security police.

Williamson returned to South Africa in 1980 after he was exposed by a South African defector. He rose to become operational head of police intelligence and later a lieutenant colonel in military intelligence.

He admitted in interviews last year that he directed the bombing of the ANC's European headquarters in London in 1982.

He also confessed to a 1982 mail bombing in Mozambique that killed Ruth First, wife of South African Communist Party leader Joe Slovo.

In 1984, he said, he helped send a mail bomb to Angola that killed Jeanette Schoon, wife of activist Marius Schoon, and their daughter Katryn.

Williamson has said he intends to seek amnesty for his crimes from South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission. A commission spokesman said Friday, however, that Williamson has yet to apply.

Drogin reported from Johannesburg and Walsh from Berlin.

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