JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- President F. W. de Klerk rejected yesterday a plea from black leader Nelson Mandela to release three white right-wing extremists who are staging a hunger strike in an attempt to avoid trial on bombing charges.
Mr. Mandela, an unlikely champion for the three men whose right-wing organization generally wants nothing to do with blacks, visited the men in their Pretoria hospital rooms Monday and then urged the president to release them on humanitarian grounds.
But Mr. Mandela emerged from his meeting at the presidential offices in Pretoria and told reporters that Mr. de Klerk "was not prepared to consider" freeing the men, who have been on a hunger strike for 58, 51 and 44 days.
Last week, Mr. de Klerk had turned down an application from the men for amnesty on the ground that their crimes were political.
The government has released hundreds of prisoners, mostly blacks affiliated with Mr. Mandela's African National Congress, under an agreement to free political prisoners from South African jails.
But government officials said last week that the alleged crimes of the three white extremists were not political.
Henry Martin, 49, Adrian Maritz, 43, and Lood van Schalkwyk, 53, are charged with stealing explosives from a mining company and setting off two bombs that killed one man and injured 13 others.
They are members of an extremist group known as the Orde Boerevolk (Order of the Boer Nation) that opposes Mr. de Klerk's political reforms and believes in the idea of a white state.
Justice Minister Kobie Coetsee said yesterday that the government had "made it clear there is to be a trial and that justice is to take its course" in the case of the three right-wingers.
In an apparent reference to Mr. Mandela's intervention, he said the hunger strikers were "receiving support from unexpected supporters. Everyone has his own agenda."
Mr. Mandela has said the men have information that will confirm the involvement of state security forces in violence against the anti- apartheid movement.
Mr. Mandela's effort never seemed to stand much chance of gaining the men's freedom, because it would have put Mr. de Klerk in the position of granting the black leader a concession that he would not grant whites who pleaded on behalf of the hunger strikers.
But the effort may have changed Mr. Mandela's image somewhat among whites who demonized him for years and still are uncomfortable with the idea of a black-majority government, which seems certain to result from the current reform process.
One of the hunger strikers called Mr. Mandela's visit Monday "the most humanitarian gesture" displayed since their hunger strike began.