A soldier accidentally shot dead a 4-year-old child, probably a girl, in Soweto Tuesday while chasing a riot suspect, the South African government said today.
But the child's father said the child was a 9-year-old boy and that the first version of the incident given by officials to his wife was that a soldier had mistaken the boy for a dog.
It was only one death in a week in which at least 54 persons have been killed because of civil unrest. Details about those deaths have come almost exclusively from the government, which has clamped tight new emergency restrictions on press coverage while assuring reporters that, in the words of one spokesman, it would provide "full, fair and factual" information.
But some of the facts were wrong today and others seemed to have been omitted in the official version of the killing of Dumisane Mbatha.
Spokesman David Steward of the Bureau for Information -- the only state agency authorized to disclose news during the state of emergency -- told the daily press briefing that the child was inadvertently shot "when warning shots fired in pursuit of a suspect penetrated a corrugated iron fence and struck the child."
He said the suspect had been pursued following the breaking up of "an illegal gathering" at a Soweto school.
Steward would not comment when asked why the warning shots were fired at a fence rather than in the air and blamed problems in "the lines of communication" for the fact that it took the government four days to reveal the incident, which, he said, police were still investigating.
The name of the victim was not revealed and journalists are barred from black townships such as Soweto.
But a black journalist discovered the child's name and address, although the house has no phone. A neighbor with the same last name, contacted by phone, agreed to fetch Johannes Mbatha, Dumisane's father, who called back two reporters tonight to give his account of the shooting.
He said his wife Elizabeth was first told that the soldiers had denied shooting the boy but claimed to have found his body in the yard.
It was only when a soldier was asked by a superior to explain why two of his bullets were missing that he confessed to having fired the shots.
Later, Mbatha said, an officer told his wife that the soldier had thought he was shooting at a dog. "They said they were shooting a dog, but it wasn't a dog, it was my son," said Mbatha.
Still later, Mbatha said, the officer told him that the soldier had been chasing another man. "They caught the man," he said, "so I don't know why they had to shoot my little one."
The officer offered to pay his son's funeral costs if he would remain silent about the incident, according to Mbatha. He said the officer gave him 575 rand (about $235) to buy a coffin for the funeral, scheduled for Saturday morning. But he needs another 200 rand ($82) for flowers and food for mourners.
"They said they were very sorry for the death, but they're trying to frighten me," said Mbatha, an unemployed laborer.
Mbatha said he believes the soldier should have been able to see his son through the fence. He said his wife, who works as a janitor for a soldiers' mess in a barracks near Soweto, "is so sick she has not gotten up yet."
He also said he has been warned that having more than 150 people at the service would violate the emergency regulations against political funerals. "But how can I stop people from coming?" he asked.
Asked how many children he has, Mbatha answered, "four children. I did have five, but now they killed one so I have four."
Spokesman Leon Mellett of the Bureau of Iinformation, contacted tonight, said the bureau's report on the killing had been based on facts supplied by the security forces. "We gave out the information we were given," he said. "If the parents confirm that that's the age and sex, then of course we'll go along with it."
"We do check things out but we haven't got the staff to check everything. We have to rely on the information given us."
At the briefing earlier today, spokesman Steward was asked how journalists could believe the bureau's information when it came late and often seemed incomplete or even false.
Steward said the agency had sought to release the facts on the killing even though the incident might cast the government in less than a favorable light. As for the truth of government's version, he said, "If you don't want to believe it, you don't have to."