Athlone: suburb under siege

2008-03-27 00:00

ATHLONE is a suburb living in fear. No fewer than 11 large homes have been raided and burgled in the past four weeks, with one or more armed gangs smashing through electric gates and front doors, threatening homeowners with guns and making off with huge hauls of valuable goods.

The siege of Athlone, as residents have dubbed it, is being operated by what police think is a well-co-ordinated syndicate who have so far outwitted police and seem unfazed by sophisticated alarms and security systems. Most of their audacious attacks are occurring during the day, in full view of the neighbourhood.

The criminals have been concentrating on the area bounded by Howick, Allerton and Henderson roads. There are 6 500 households in Athlone, with about 30 000 residents.

The robbers are targeting high-priced, easily-disposable luxury items like plasma screen TVs, laptops and DVD players, jewellery and cash. In one robbery, they broke open a safe containing more than U.S.$50 000.

In another, a prominent Pietermaritzburg woman had a priceless collection of antique gold and diamond jewellery stolen from a security box in her bedroom.

Chairman of the Town Hill Community Police Forum (CPF), Stuart Knight, says the robberies and assaults are “a total onslaught and cause for great concern”.

However, Town Hill police station commissioner Captain Lawson Naidoo says the “net is drawing in daily on these criminals”.

Pierre Berrange, chairman of the Athlone CPF sub-forum, himself a victim of the gang, says a security patrol was started on March 1. “But these guys are professionals. They know the guards patrol only at night and that’s why they’re operating by day, especially on Saturday and Sunday afternoons.”

Despite huge losses, many of the victims have only high praise for the rapid and positive response they’ve had from the SAPS, but others are demanding to know what the police are doing about it.

“We haven’t seen anything in the papers or what progress is being made in catching these people,” complained one ratepayer.

However, Captain Naidoo told The Witness more has been happening than meets the eye.

“We’ve been operating by stealth rather than raising the alarm.

“We’ve been busy and I know residents in the whole area are alarmed. But I assure them that the net is closing in. We are working hand-in-glove with agencies such as the provincial crime intelligence analysis unit, the organised crime and forensics units, local criminal databases and traffic departments, and we have built up substantive profiles of the suspects.

“Without giving away too much, what we can say is that we have excellent descriptions and will be issuing identikits soon.

“We know that the syndicate is using the same modus operandi, and drive around scouting the area in late-model or luxury cars [to avoid suspicion], and latest information indicates that they are also operating in the Pinetown/Westville area. We also suspect that the syndicate is based in kwaDebeka [near Pinetown].”

Naidoo says residents can rest easier because “there’s little chance [the gang] will escape the net that has been cast for them, as it stretches right across the province, even reaching to Joburg.

“It’s just a matter of time before we round them up.”

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