CAPE TOWN, SOUTH AFRICA, FEB. 8 -- South Africa has begun repatriating to Malawi about 1,000 migrant mine workers who tested positive for the AIDS virus and it will step up screenings to prevent the spread of the disease by immigrants, Health Minister Willie van Niekerk said today.

Van Niekerk would not specify how many miners already have left the country but said "the process has begun and is continuing."

In a briefing for reporters, the health minister said, "Any country has an obligation to its citizens to protect them . . . . This will be done with compassion." He said his department had been contacted by white South Africans living near mine workers' living compounds who expressed concern that their domestic workers had been associating with migrant mine workers and were vulnerable.

Further spread of the disease in the general population could only be contained by screening visa applicants and by repatriating those who show positive after their arrival, van Niekerk said. He said the government had rejected a quarantine of carriers as well as a proposal to require physicians to report all detections because that could drive the disease underground.

Last year, the government amended the immigration laws to add AIDS to the list of transmittible diseases which could disqualify a potential immigrant. It also adopted legislation permitting the testing of any visitor, although it is not considered practical to test all arrivals, van Niekerk said.

The government requires miners from "high-risk" areas in southern Africa seeking employment to undergo a blood test in their country. Persons found to be positive for the virus are denied entry.

AIDS is less common here than in many African countries, with 98 cases having been identified, 66 of whom have died, van Niekerk said.