‘Military’ gang blasts Estcourt

2012-04-21 00:00

THE sleepy town of Estcourt was roused from its slumber by the blasts of a double ATM bombing in the early hours of yesterday morning.

A brazen gang sealed off entrances to the town in textbook military style, chasing off security guards, before bombing the Absa and FNB ATMs in the town’s business centre, very close to the police station.

Reports indicated that up to 15 men were involved, many carrying automatic weapons.

The ATMs are in the foyers of Absa in Harding Street and FNB in Alfred Street.

A police insider said the gangsters were heavily armed with AK47 rifles and shot at any car that moved in their direction. Police spokesperson Captain Thulani Zwane said three ATMs were bombed altogether.

He said a large group of men had attacked, held up and assaulted a security guard. He said there was also a shootout between the gang and a security company that was patrolling the area.

The robbers made off with an undisclosed amount of money. Sources in the town said it was believed they used mealie bags to haul their loot away. Mac Mkhwanazi, owner of Enviro Watch Security, said about 15 armed men, carrying what looked to him like R4 rifles, sealed off the entrances into the central business district before embarking on the well timed bombings. “Three of the security guards responded to the alarm, but when they arrived at the scene they were greeted with gunfire as the suspects shot at my car, but fortunately they only hit the car and none of my men were hit,” said Mkhwanazi. He added that upon examining the car he realised that these were professional people because the bullets were aimed at the driver’s head. He was lucky not to be hit.

“When my men realised that they were being targeted they left the car and fled on foot,” Mkhwanazi said.

He said the bombing spree looked like a planned robbery because automatic rifle cartridges were scattered all over the scene, which means that the gangsters were heavily armed with lots of ammunition.

Stunned residents reported waking up to the blasts, followed by a quick succession of gunfire.

George van Niekerk told Weekend Witness he initially thought the ATM at the Spar Centre had been bombed again. It was recently bombed. He went outside to see if he could establish the source of the blasts and reported that a man was seen fleeing from the CBD, saying he had been drinking in town and the robbers had held a gun to his head and kicked him before he fled. He had wet his pants in fear. The man said he had heard the blasts as he ran for his life.

Yesterday morning the town was almost at a standstill, with the main street, lined with clothing, furniture and food shops, completely locked down. Police cordoned off the section of the main street close to the blast sites for several hours. Both car and foot traffic was not allowed close to the scene.

People stood gawking at the damage, with one resident remarking in despair: “Is this world coming to an end?” as he looked at the scale of the damage.

A resident who declined to be named said: “I heard the first blast and thought nothing of it and when I heard the second blast and then the gunfire. I told my wife that something was happening. There were rounds of ammunition; it sounded like an automatic rifle.”

Another resident said the gunfire was to warn the police. “There was no shootout; I think that they fired those shots just to tell the police, ‘hey we are busy here’.”

The blast at the Absa ATM not only ripped the machine from the wall, it also severely damaged another machine next to it. Bits and pieces of the machines’ mechanisms were scattered all over the crime scene.

Windows, lights and the ceiling of the Absa foyer were severely damaged. Police would not allow Weekend Witness near the FNB ATM as they were still busy processing the crime scene.

A source at the scene said it was a miracle that there was not more damage. “From the look of it, it seems only one of the bombs placed on these machines went off; when it blew, it probably pushed out the other bombs so they did not explode.”

The bombings were also not captured on the town’s camera system. An official with intimate knowledge of the projects said the cameras broke down almost two years ago and they have not been fixed.

Some residents thought they were still paying a levy for these cameras on their municipal bills, but this was found to be untrue, as the payments were halted soon after the cameras stopped working.

Police have been looking for Menzi Hector Mabaso in connection with ATM bombings in Winterton, Mondlo and Bergville. At Loskop near Estcourt, another ATM was recently also bombed. Attempts to contact the municipality, Absa and FNB were unsuccessful.

The damage to one of the ATMs at the Absa bank in the Estcourt town centre after it was bombed by a heavily armed gang in the early hours of yesterday morning. An ATM at the First national Bank nearby was also blown up.

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