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Former president P.W. Botha said Saturday he would vote against democratic reforms, describing them as "suicide" for South Africa's long-dominant white minority.

With debate raging just 10 days before a crucial referendum, partisans on both sides prophesy doom if they lose - a battleship blockade by the outside world if whites return to their old apartheid ways, civil war if blacks take power.Botha, who led the country from 1978 to 1989, aimed a powerful blow at his successor, President F.W. de Klerk, who has pledged to resign if white voters reject his reforms.

"I cannot participate in what I perceive as a direction of suicide for my own people," Botha said in a statement to the South African Press Association.

"My wife and I seriously considered what we should do in this referendum which was so suddenly called. We are not members of any political party or movement, but we have decided to vote `no' on March 17," he said.

De Klerk quickly dismissed Botha's view.

"I cannot but believe that his current conduct is motivated to a large extent by personal resentment," he said of his predecessor, who was ousted by a Cabinet revolt.

"It is not true that a `yes' vote is a suicide plan which would lead to domination by the African National Congress-Communist Party alliance. Precisely the opposite is true," he said.

Political analysts said Botha's decision could influence many whites wavering between de Klerk's warnings that rejection of reform would mean economic disaster in the shape of fresh world sanctions, and the opposition Conservative Party arguments that black rule ultimately would bring worse disaster.