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Tears at Worcester bomber's message

FIFTEEN years ago the pavement outside the Checkers parking lot in Worcester was strewn with bodies - the victims of a gruesome Christmas Eve bomb attack that killed four people and injured 67.

Many of the survivors returned to the same spot on Friday to hear an apology from one of the bombers, whose written statement was read out to mark National Reconciliation Day.

The unusual gesture from convicted killer Stefaans Coetzee, which drew applause from a packed hall, is the culmination of a two-year restitution project aimed at healing the town's apartheid wounds.

Coetzee is serving a lengthy sentence in Pretoria Central Prison for his part in the multiple-bomb attack in 1996 that targeted the black population.

He was denied permission to travel to Worcester to speak directly to his victims.

However, his words, read out by a friend, prompted a heavy silence and a few tears from a rapt audience that included University of the Free State vice-chancellor Jonathan Jansen.

Coetzee said he "projected what he believed was right" into a deed that affected many innocent people.

"I will only be able to comprehend the full impact on the day I will be able to face you in person."

Coetzee famously met some of his victims at the prison two years ago. His willingness to seek forgiveness - and the victims' willingness to grant it - is held up as a model of reconciliation by civil society organisations working to promote social justice.

Since the meeting, the community-led Worcester Restitution Project has gained widespread support.

Olga Macingwane still limps from injuries sustained in the attack. She was paying for groceries when the first bomb went off. Two other bombs outside the centre failed to detonate.

"I was so scared to come here, especially at this time of year [Christmas]. I didn't expect a special day like this," said Macingwane.

The Restitution Foundation started the reconciliation project in collaboration with social justice movement Khulumani.

Coetzee, 33, claims to have had a religious conversion, which prompted his remorse.

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