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Tuesday, January 5, 1999 Published at 18:37 GMT


World: Africa

Muslim militancy in South Africa

Two were killed and many injured in the Planet Hollywood attack

UK Prime Minister Tony Blair arrives in South Africa this week amid threats of demonstrations by Muslim activist groups in protest at the UK's involvement in air strikes against Iraq.

His visit also comes after a string of high-profile crimes in Cape Town - many of them linked to the activities of Muslim vigilantes.

Mr Blair has not been threatened with violence, and the groups that are targeting him have not been definitively linked to the recent spate of crimes.

But the threats to the prime minister and the recent violence both signal a new militancy among South Africa's Muslim radicals.

Bomb attacks

Last year, a bomb at a Planet Hollywood restaurant in a popular tourist area of Cape Town killed two and injured many more.

Earlier this month, two people were injured by a similar bomb placed in a car not far from the scene of the restaurant blast.

A caller claiming to be part of an organisation called Muslims Against Global Oppression (Mago) claimed responsibility for the first blast, saying it was in retaliation for the US missile attacks on Sudan and Afghanistan.

Although the majority of South African Muslims do not support the extremists, observers say anger runs deep where US aggression against Muslims is abroad concerned.

Mago is one of the two organisations which have promised to disrupt Mr Blair's visit.

Vigilantes

Mago's leadership later denied responsibility for the restaurant bombing, but police believe the attack is the work of Muslim militants with links to vigilante groups such as People Against Gangs and Drugs (Pagad), which grew up in response to Cape Town's endemic gangster crime problem.

The police have also linked Pagad to a spate of similar attacks in the Cape Town area, and to an audacious armed robbery at a police station.

Attack on gang boss

Pagad hit the headlines in 1996 when Rashaad Staggie, co-leader of one of South Africa's most notorious criminal gangs, was shot and then burnt to death.

His killers were members of Pagad, which draws most of its support from the Muslim community. Although it portrays itself as a secular anti-crime organisation, Islamic fundamentalists are prominent among its leadership.

Vigilantism had begun peacefully in Cape Town's Muslim areas, as residents patrolled neighbourhoods to discourage drug dealers, many of whom appeared to enjoy impunity from the police.

The Staggie murder gave vigilantism a new and ugly face - but the movement gained support as it often appeared more effective than police force when it came to fighting criminals.

300-year history

Islam first came to South Africa 300 years ago, when Dutch settlers at the Cape brought slaves from colonies in south-east Asia.

Under apartheid, almost all Muslims were classified either coloured or Indian - meaning that they suffered racial discrimination, but enjoyed a more privileged position than South Africans of African descent.

Some Muslims became prominent opponents of apartheid, such as Ahmed Kathrada who was imprisoned alongside Nelson Mandela, and Dullah Omar who is now minister of justice.

Politically-active Muslims concentrated most of their efforts on fighting apartheid, and in the 1980s, Muslim religious leaders declared the anti-apartheid struggle a Jihad, or holy war.

But Muslim activists also expressed solidarity with the Palestinian struggle for land, and with Iran, Iraq and Libya against the US.

Threats to Rushdie

The first high-profile threat of fundamentalist violence came in 1988, when British author Salman Rushdie was invited to speak at a literary event in South Africa.

Islamic militants made death threats against Mr Rushdie in line with the fatwa - or religious edict - declared by Iranian religious leader Ayatollah Khomeini. The author's invitation was withdrawn, his hosts declaring they could not guarantee his safety.





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