Heist convoy shot ‘mercilessly’

2008-05-07 00:00

THE sleepy Mid Illovo and Eston farming areas between Pietermaritzburg and Durban had a rude awakening yesterday morning as 18 armed members of a cash-in-transit heist gang and members of a private security firm traded fire in a 20-minute gun battle.

The criminals shot and injured two Cash Paymaster Service (CPS) staff who were preparing a pension payout in Mid Illovo.

Police spokesman Senior Superintendent Henry Budhram said the injured people were identified as Thandeka Dube (31), who was shot on the left shoulder, and Ruben Thokozani Hlongwane (24), shot in the chest and back. Both are in hospital in a serious but stable condition.

Later, two members of the heist gang were arrested, while the rest managed to flee, leaving behind the cash dispensing machine they tried to steal containing more than R200 000.

Magma Security guards and police tried to stop the gang from escaping with the stolen cash and a shootout ensued.

“This was more than a gun battle movie. We were really facing death. These people were shooting mercilessly,” said Shaheen Suleiman, the owner of Magma Security, who was also involved in the shootout.

Police said that the heist gang were armed with high-calibre assault rifles including an Uzi, R1s, R5s and 9 mms. The Uzzi and two 9 mm firearms were confiscated when two members of the gang gave in to the Magma and SAPS officers after a 15-km high speed car chase.

The drama began at about 8.30 am, soon after CPS vehicles arrived at Jabula Stores at the Mid Illovo pension point.

Police said that as the CPS staff were preparing to start their day’s work, four vehicles, among them 4x4s, arrived on the scene. A large group of armed men alighted, and fired shots to open their way up to where the CPS vehicles were.

The robbers loaded the cash machines into their getaway 4x4 Mitsubishi Pajero and sped away towards Eston. The Pajero drove between two vehicles.

As the convoy drove past Mid Illovo Police Station, the gang members opened fire randomly, apparently to scare the police officers away.

Suleiman, who received a call from his client, was already speeding to the scene in his Audi A3, followed by three vehicles belonging to his company. They intercepted the criminals’ convoy about two kilometres from the robbery scene.

“As we were driving down the Mid Illovo dirt road, we saw this convoy. We turned to follow them. The occupants of the convoy opened fire randomly. We fired back. It was an exchange of bullets all the way to Eston.

“When we came to the hill, we panicked and slowed down fearing that they were waiting for us on the other side. As we [got to the crest of the hill we realised] they were already far ahead of us.

“As they took a turn off toward Mariannhill, we informed the police to form a blockade ahead at the intersection of Eston/Mariannhill and Mophela roads.

“The other two getaway vehicles managed to go through the blockade. At the police roadblock there was shooting between us, police and the criminals.

“Two of them [the gang members] gave in while others fled on foot into the sugar cane,” said Suleiman.

Police said the Pajero was reported stolen from the Point in Durban and the Honda Ballade was stolen in Umhlanga in Durban North. At the spot where the arrests were made, there were “many” spent cartridges.

Police gave chase after those who ran into the sugar cane. An SAPS helicopter was also seen flying around the area. Durban Metro Police also joined the search for those who had managed to get away.

Police spokeswoman Inspector Joey Jeevan said only two gang members were arrested.

The Witness understands the suspects arrested to be between 28 and 30 years old, and the amount retrieved to be in the region of R750 000.

Police said further arrests are imminent.

bhans@witness.co.za

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