Nelson Mandela is being gradually returned to freedom after 26 years in South African prisons, politicians and family friends said on Friday.

An announcement by Justice Minister Kobie Coetsee on Thursday that Mandela would not go back to prison when he recovers from tuberculosis reinforced theories of a phased release for the 70-year-old black nationalist leader, they said."I see it very clearly within that framework (of a phased release)," Dave Dalling, justice spokesman for the opposition liberal Progressive Federal Party, told Reuters.

Dalling said the government had realized that its plans to negotiate a new constitution with black leaders would not succeed without Man-dela's participation.

"The only alternative for the government is to release Mandela. This is a way to prepare the ground," he said.

He said he believed the government would now try to woo Mandela into negotiations.

Essa Moosa, a lawyer and friend of the Mandela family, said the move confirmed Mandela would be freed in stages.

The U.S. State Department welcomed on Friday the decision not to send Mandela back to prison.

"From a humanitarian standpoint, this is a commendable gesture," State Department spokesman Charles Redman said.

Mandela, serving a life sentence for plotting to overthrow white rule, is a powerful symbol of opposition to apartheid and his release has been sought by governments worldwide.

Black leaders like Zulu chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi have refused to negotiate with Pretoria on ending apartheid unless the African National Congress (ANC) leader is freed.

Coetsee said Pretoria would ease restrictions on Mandela and grant freer access to his family when he was fit enough to leave the private clinic where he is being treated.

"When the time arrives, he will be transferred to suitable, comfortable and secure living accommodations."