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President Frederik de Klerk lifted a 4-year-old nationwide state of emergency Thursday but retained special powers to deal with strife in Natal province.

De Klerk, speaking before a rare joint session of parliament, said his decision had removed one of the major stumbling blocks to full power-sharing negotiations with the country's black majority.Black nationalist leader Nelson Mandela, in France Thursday as part of a 45-day international tour, called the decision "a victory for the South African people as a whole, both white and black."

De Klerk also announced the release of 48 political prisoners "as a gesture" in advance of an agreement with Mandela's African National Congress on the release of all political prisoners and the return of exiles.

"We are on the threshold of the real negotiation process, and the time has come for other important role players to do their bit," de Klerk said.

Mandela, after meeting French President Francois Mitterrand on the second day of a 36-hour visit to Paris, said, "We are happy it has been lifted but do not claim it as a victory."

Imposition of the state of emergency prompted Western governments to impose tough trade sanctions in 1986 that threw the economy into its most serious crisis since the National Party rose to power on a platform to safeguard minority white privilege.

De Klerk said, "After thorough consideration of all the relevant factors, I have decided to announce that there will no longer be a general countrywide state of emergency but that henceforth it will exist in Natal only."

Violence in the southeastern province of Natal has left about 500 people dead since the first of the year.

De Klerk also called on the ANC to stop "vacillating" on key issues.