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The government Saturday freed 48 political prisoners, some jailed on treason charges for more than a decade, in a goodwill gesture coinciding with the arrival of a U.N. team checking on South Africa's progress in ending apartheid.

The move was made pending agreement with the African National Congress on its demands for the release of all political offenders.The mass release, the biggest ever ordered by reformist President F.W. de Klerk, coincided with the arrival in South Africa of the U.N. fact-finding mission investigating the minority white government's progress in abolishing racial segregation.

The bulk of the prisoners had been held at the maximum security facility on Robben Island, off Cape Town. Twenty-eight were freed after wardens gave them the news Friday night as they watched the opening game of the World Cup on television.

They were dropped off at the Cape Town harbor at midday Saturday and fed sandwiches and soup by supporters before appearing at a news conference.

One of the men released, Stephen Nkosi, said he thought the 48 were freed as a publicity move to "undercut" the current international tour by African National Congress leader Nelson Mandela.

Mandela is on a six-week tour of Europe, North America and Africa to urge foreign governments to maintain economic sanctions against South Africa to protest apartheid.

Speaking in Geneva Saturday, Mandela said non-whites in South Africa face the same discrimination as when he was imprisoned 27 years ago. He urged the international community to continue its pressure against apartheid.

"The fact that he (de Klerk) has declared he wants a non-racial constitution does not mean apartheid has come to an end," said Mandela, who was freed from prison in February.