JOHANNESBURG, South Africa - Rival factions waged running gunbattles in the streets of two black townships, pushing the nationwide death toll past 125 in four days of savage fighting, officials said today.
Worst-hit were Tokoza and Katlehong, a pair of dusty, impoverished townships southeast of Johannesburg that have regularly erupted into urban warfare in recent years.
The fighting is part of the bitter power struggle between the African National Congress, the country's largest black group, and the Inkatha Freedom Party, a conservative Zulu movement.
Police found more than 40 bodies on the streets of the neighboring townships last night and this morning, bringing the death count for the area to 65 since the fighting began over the weekend. The fiercest fighting took place overnight, but there were sporadic gunfire, stone throwing and fire-bomb attacks today, said police spokesman Capt. Wickus Weber.
Many of the victims were shot, indicative of the dramatic increase in guns in black areas. Until recently, much of the factional fighting was carried out with knives, spears and machetes.
Cars were placed in the middle of streets and set alight, and houses were torched. Taxi vans usually clog the streets during the morning rush hour, but few drivers ventured onto the roads today.
Police, who are also targeted for attack, patrolled in their yellow armored vehicles and set up roadblocks. Reinforcements also were called into the townships.
"We are doing our best to separate the warring groups," said Weber.
It was not clear what sparked the latest violence, but the two townships are volatile and a single incident can unleash retaliatory attacks that spiral out of control.
Police said most of the fighting appeared to be between ANC and Inkatha supporters, but disputes between taxi drivers competing for routes and passengers may also be fueling the conflict.
Many township residents support the ANC. But Zulu men who live in single-sex workers hostels back the conservative Inkatha movement. Much of the latest fighting has taken place on streets just outside the hostels, where the Zulus and other township residents converge.
Political violence has claimed more than 10,000 black lives nationwide since 1990 and has slowed the black-white talks on ending apartheid. Political leaders last week agreed to hold the country's first election including the black majority next April. But latest wave of unrest shows how difficult it will be for parties to organize and campaign freely.
The independent South African Press Association said at least 125 blacks have been killed since the weekend fighting began.
Aside from the Johannesburg region, most of the fighting has been in the eastern province of Natal, where the ANC-Inkatha feud began in the mid-1980s.
Two villages in a rural corner of Natal, Ncalu and Maweni, had become virtual ghost towns as residents left to escape the fighting, the Press Association reported.
The two Zulu villages, separated by a small river, coexisted peacefully for generations until Ncalu became an ANC stronghold and Maweni sided with Inkatha.