JOHANNESBURG, Jan 24 (Reuters) - South Africa's government defended its embattled police service on Friday from rising criticisms that officers used excessive force, saying there was "no carte blanche" to kill innocent protesters.
Nearly 18 months after riot police shot dead 34 striking mine workers, the South African Police Service is under renewed pressure after 14 officers were implicated in the death of four people killed during demonstrations against a water shortage.
The incident has cast an unwelcome spotlight on President Jacob Zuma's ANC government as it prepares for elections expected around April amid charges it has largely not delivered on promises to better the lives of millions of poor blacks during 20 years in power.
Police minister Nathi Mthethwa denied there was a "prevalent culture of impunity within the police service".
"We are a caring government and therefore there is no carte blanche that we give to our officers to kill innocent people who protest," he told a news conference.
Mthethwa said six officers had already been suspended over the deaths in the North West settlement of Mothutlung, where some members of the public order policing unit last week used banned ammunition against protesters.
The South African Human Rights Commission says the force has not heeded recommendations to improve training and better equip officers deployed to manage protests.
And government critics, including expelled former ANC youth leader Julius Malema, say the ruling party has effectively turned South Africa into a police state to quell rising public anger over low wages and a lack of adequate housing, electricity and sanitation in poor black townships.
"Your hands have got the blood of innocent souls," Malema said in an impromptu address to Mothutlung residents after leading a protest march to the local government offices.
Mthethwa said the police would continue to exercise its constitutional mandate of maintaining peace and order, and was keeping a close eye on striking workers at platinum mines that were the site of violent protests in late 2012.
"We want a peaceful strike. Police are not striking, mine workers are. Organizers have an obligation to ensure that there is peace," he said. (Reporting by Stella Mapenzauswa, editing by Alister Doyle)