CAPE TOWN, SOUTH AFRICA, OCT. 8 -- President Frederik W. de Klerk announced today that political exiles can begin applying to return to South Africa, addressing a key demand of the African National Congress.

His statement followed a three-hour meeting with ANC leader Nelson Mandela at which they apparently differed on causes of black factional fighting that has killed about 800 people in eight weeks.

De Klerk said that exiles, many based in Zambia and other southern African nations, could immediately begin applying for amnesty for "political offenses."

But he cautioned: "No indemnity for anyone, or for any event or offense is granted automatically." He said any possible indemnity would only apply to acts committed before today's meeting.

The move could help resolve one of the major stumbling blocks of peace talks between the white-led government and Mandela's ANC, the largest black opposition movement.

The ANC has demanded the return of its estimated 20,000 exiles before beginning full-scale negotiations on black-white power sharing and ending apartheid.

Until today, the government had agreed in principle but never announced a mechanism. De Klerk's statement said full details of the process would be announced later.

The government also agreed to release 15 more political prisoners this week, the statement said.