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15 Die in Stampede At Railroad Station

July 31, 1996 GMT

TEMBISA, South Africa (AP) _ Morning rush hour became a deadly stampede Wednesday after security guards used electric prods to control crowds at a railroad station. At least 15 commuters were crushed to death.

What President Nelson Mandela called ``a national tragedy″ sparked outrage in Tembisa, a black township northeast of Johannesburg. After the stampede, a mob torched a station ticket office and stoned riot police arriving to restore order.

About 60 policemen, supported by an armored vehicle, hurled tear gas and fired shots into the air. The angry crowd, which grew at one point to about 1,000 people, dispersed only hours after the stampede.

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Rush hour impatience, people seeking to avoid train fares, tension over stepped up security and overzealous guards all contributed to chaos at the station.

``This is a disaster that touches the hearts of all of us,″ said Transport Minister Mac Maharaj, who put the death toll at 15. He said 65 people were hospitalized.

Patrick Maneli, 29, said security guards began prodding people while asking them for their tickets.

``Some panicked. Others fought back. They (the guards) also started shooting into the air, and near people’s feet,″ he said.

Maneli said he saw the crowd crush a pregnant woman.

``The crowd came to her from every direction and it was too heavy for her,″ he said.

Police inspector Kamal Shivanand said the security guards, hired from a private company, used electric prods to repel hundreds of commuters who were pushing their way past a ticket barrier and on to the platform.

Francois van Eeden, an official of Metrorail, which runs the station, said guards were equipped with devices that give non-lethal shocks as a crowd-control measure.

Honey Mateya, another Metrorail official, said the prods had been introduced to replace guns because officials were concerned about the dangers posed by firearms.

Mateya said the public company had stepped up efforts this week to make sure only paying commuters boarded trains at Tembisa. More employees were checking for tickets, and extra security was called in, slowing down boarding.

Riding public trains for free and refusing to pay rent to the government bodies that once controlled black townships were all once seen as legitimate anti-apartheid protests. Now the ``culture of nonpayment″ has become ingrained among the impoverished black majority, despite attempts to erase it by the black-led government that took over in historic all-race elections in 1994.

The stampede happened at about 6 a.m. when the station was jammed with people going to work.

Some witnesses said they saw guards firing guns. Company spokeswoman Bintu Petsana said none of the guards working for Metrorail were authorized to carry firearms.

Mandela’s government appointed a committee to investigate the incident.

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