SAPA 12 Oct. 2000

Cape Town -- Parliament was on Thursday swept for bombs and bugs by the police in what the head of the national protection service in the Western Cape said was a routine exercise.

Senior Superintendent Wally Rhoode told Sapa the exercise had nothing to do with concerns expressed by African National Congress MPs that its caucus meetings may have been bugged.

This follows media reports of what President Thabo Mbeki told the ANC parliamentary caucus two weeks ago.

It was reported that Mbeki told MPs that Western interests were seeking to discredit him and the country, and that the United States' Central Intelligence Agency was part of a conspiracy to promote the view that HIV causes AIDS.

Both the Sunday Times and the Mail and Guardian reported extensively on what Mbeki had apparently told MPs, leading to speculation in some ANC quarters that the meeting may have been bugged.

A number of MPs canvassed by Sapa during the week discounted that the information was acquired by way of routine leaks by ANC MPs, and insisted their caucus had somehow been bugged.

Some believed a tape recorder had been smuggled into the caucus room -the Old Assembly chamber in Parliament--or that the internal broadcast system had somehow been accessed.

On at least one previous occasion the system was inadvertently left switched on, allowing parliamentary staff, opposition parties and reporters to eavesdrop.

An incredulous parliamentary press gallery reporter was overheard telling an MP, after being told of the bugging claim: "Journalists don't have the technological know-how to do that!"

On Thursday, ahead of the ANC's caucus meeting, a policeman at Parliament was asking reporters for a blank tape to test whether the system could be bugged.

Rhoode said he had given instructions on Thursday "that everything should be checked for bugs and bombs".

He had received no request from the ANC or Parliament's presiding officers to check for bugging.

"It is a standard operational procedure. We regularly check for bombs, and, on a random basis, bugs."

Rhoode said his instructions had not been prompted by media reports quoting Mbeki, or because these may have caused embarrassment to the president.