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Britain defies EC, lifts ban on new investment in S. Africa

Britain broke ranks with its European Community partners Tuesday by announcing it would unilaterally ease economic sanctions against South Africa after failing to convince the rest of the EC to follow suit. Only Portugal backed Britain's proposal to lift a ban on new investment in South Africa in response to President Frederik de Klerk's decision to free black nationalist leader Nelson Mandela and legalize the African National Congress.

Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd announced Britain's decision to lift the ban, one of the EC's sanctions against South Africa aimed at ending apartheid.

Asked whether Britain would now act alone, he said: "I expect that that will be so.

"I can't see any reason for delay," he said when asked about the required formality of a written statement to Parliament.

EC officials agreed instead to send a fact-finding ministerial mission to South Africa soon to assess the situation. No date has been set for the visit, but diplomats said it could be in the second half of March.

The prospect of unilateral British action drew a stinging rebuke from Irish Foreign Minister Gerry Collins, whose government currently holds the EC presidency. "It will be the first time such consensus has ever been broken," he said.

"It will destroy political cooperation within the European Community as it has been up to now."

Collins told a news conference the community felt de Klerk's reforms were welcome but did not go far enough. "The state of emergency is still in place, and a number of political prisoners are still being held. There is still a distance to go to achieve the complete abolition of apartheid."

He said the EC would provide extra help for South Africa's black majority.

While the EC ministers were meeting in Dublin, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher told Parliament in London that de Klerk deserved encouragement from the EC for having embarked on courageous reforms.

In addition to a ban on new investment, EC sanctions bar imports of gold coins, iron and steel. Arms sales and oil exports to South Africa and military and nuclear energy cooperation are also banned.