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South Africa plans to free Walter Sisulu, the country's most prominent political prisoner after Nelson Mandela, before a Commonwealth summit later this month, government sources said Saturday.

The sources, who declined to be named, said the government had approved the release of Sisulu, 77, and Oscar Mpetha, 80, and the two would probably be freed a few days before the summit opens in Kuala Lumpur Oct. 18.A decision had been made to free Sisulu and Mpetha before the summit in order to ease pressure on British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who opposes efforts by her Commonwealth colleagues to impose further sanctions on South Africa.

"We owe Mrs. Thatcher a favor," one source told Reuters.

Sisulu, a former secretary-general of the African National Congress (ANC) guerrilla group, was sentenced along with Mandela to life in jail for plotting sabotage and revolution, at the Rivonia treason trial in June 1964.

Mpetha, South Africa's oldest political prisoner, was convicted of terrorism in 1987 and jailed for five years. He is in poor health in a Cape Town hospital.

After the release of Sisulu and Mpetha, the government will see how the black majority and others react before freeing other prominent black leaders.

Sisulu "knows that his behavior will have a bearing on the release of others," one source said. The sources said Mandela's freedom will come last - at his own request.

"He does not want to be released while his friends are still in prison. He wants to come out a with a clear conscience," a source said.

Mandela's release may even come before Christmas, the sources said, but they added that no date had been set.

The release of political prisoners will be an important plank in the campaign of South Africa's new president, F.W. de Klerk, to win international respectability.

De Klerk has also pledged to start negotiations with leaders of South Africa's black majority. The government hopes such a move will break a current deadlock over beginning such talks.