Soweto bombs may have been just a 'dry run'

By John Battersby, Caroline Hooper-Box and Gill Gifford

Jackie Selebi, the police commissioner, says the police have the names of suspects wanted in connection with this week's bomb blasts in Soweto and Bronkhorstspruit and are close to making arrests.

"We know who we are looking for. We have their names. It's just a question of where they are hiding... whether they are up in the mountains or where..." Selebi said.

The police have not been able to confirm a link between the bombings and a reported right-wing plot to overthrow the government and destabilise the country. So far 17 people have been arrested in connection with the coup plot.

Analysts have warned that the bombings may be the start of a terror campaign or a preliminary "dry run" for an extended terror campaign.

Dr Mark Welman, a forensic psychologist and the director of the MTN Centre for Crime Prevention at Rhodes University, who has done considerable research into terrorism in the Western Cape and elsewhere in the world, said the people responsible for this week's terror blasts appear to have taken care to avoid casualties and were intent on making a statement.

"It's difficult to work out what that statement is if you don't know who is responsible. There has been speculation that there is a right-wing element involved, and it makes sense because it would fit in with their agenda," Welman said, adding that by targeting railway lines in Soweto the bombers had focused on black commuters, caused discomfort and fear and irritated the government.

"If there are a series of bombings in South Africa, the logical assumption would be that the right wing is to blame as they are the only group that has threatened violence and been stockpiling weapons, holding training camps and making demands on the government which they feel have not been met," Welman said.

He said the timing of this week's blasts tied in with the coming Christmas season and could be the start of a year-end terror campaign or "dry run" to ensure the effectiveness of operational plans before "the real thing".

"It could have been a trial run to test the effectiveness of the explosive and detonators, as well as police reaction time and their strategies."

Police said they would compile and distribute a profile of the alleged perpetrators of the Soweto bombings, but did an about-turn on Friday morning when a high-level decision was taken to keep the information secret.

While no arrests have yet been made, a team of investigators drawn from various specialist units, including bomb disposal experts, crime intelligence, serious and violent crimes detectives and forensics units were toiling around the clock.

Selebi dismissed the theory that the bomb blasts might have been the work of a group of disgruntled former soldiers who worked for counter-insurgency units during the apartheid era such as Koevoet and 32 Battalion.

Selebi said members of this group, who have been maintained in camps by the new SANDF since they were retrenched several years ago, did not have the organisational ability to mount such a series of attacks.

The group, which mounted a protest march during the World Summit on Sustainable Development in August, has also hijacked a train and attempted to launch attacks from neighbouring Botswana, according to intelligence sources.

The focus of the investigation remains on right-wing extremists.

While the extreme right wing's power has waned significantly in the eight years since the 1994 election, analysts agree that a small number of such individuals still have the power to do considerable damage.

"In the run-up to the election in 1994, the radical right was quite large," said Martin Schonteich, a senior researcher at the Institute for Security Studies, "and posed a real threat".

Constand Viljoen, the former South African Defence Force general, had the power to mobilise 50 000 trained military personnel at the time of the 1994 election "capable of taking over large parts of South Africa", Schonteich said.

In the end, Viljoen decided to take part in the elections.

While the right wing had the chance to make a difference in 1994 - a group of about two dozen people, Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging members on the whole, were involved in some bombings at the time of the election - their chances are now "incredibly diminished", Schonteich said.

Writing on the ANC website, ANC Today, President Thabo Mbeki warned this week that the state would not allow small groups to subvert the democratic process.

"The matter must however be made abundantly clear that the democratic order will not submit to threats of this kind," Mbeki said.

"It must remain ever vigilant and ready to defend itself against those who do not respect our constitution, democracy and the rule of law.

"It must be ready to use the law to bring to book all those who because they think their cause places them above the law, believe they have a right to resort to force," Mbeki said.

"Bombs, terrorism and threats of violence ... constitute an attempt to take away the miraculous achievement of 1994. The people of South Africa will unite to defeat those who want to return our country to a past it has rejected," Mbeki said.

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