When ‘war’ came to town

2018-02-25 06:00
SA police. (Duncan Alfreds, News24)

SA police. (Duncan Alfreds, News24)

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A police officer who survived this week’s attack on the Ngcobo Police Station in the Eastern Cape has described how he had to crawl on the ground to escape a volley of rifle fire that met him when he arrived to help his slain colleagues.

When the officer and a colleague, who were called as back-up from a nearby police station, arrived at 23:00 on Tuesday, the station was a “war zone” as between 15 and 20 armed attackers opened fire on them with automatic rifles.

“As we got closer and parked outside the police station, we saw people shooting in our direction. We got out of the police vehicle we were travelling in and ran for cover,” he said.

He could see some of his slain colleagues lying on the ground inside the police station.

“I took cover in an abandoned old vehicle at the magistrate’s court next to the police station.

“I was carrying a pistol and could not even attempt to shoot back at those guys because they were well armed and we were obviously outnumbered and outgunned.

“I was shocked. As a police officer you are always ready for this, but when it confronts you, it always comes as a shock. I remember crawling to try to avoid being hit by bullets flying all over the place.”

The officer had no choice but to take cover.

“The attackers were at an advantage because they were standing in the dark while they could see the police officers who were in the light inside the police station,” said the officer.

He came out of hiding only when he was sure the attackers had left and he heard them driving off.

Ngcobo Police Station, he said, did not even have a gate. There was no security checkpoint and no cameras.

The attackers managed to ambush the officers because there was not even a single light at the entrance, he said.

There were 10 police officers on duty when the police station was ambushed. The five women were spared by the attackers and locked up in a police van, but their five male colleagues were slaughtered. They were Constable Zuko Ntsheku (38) from Ngcobo; Constable Nkosiphendule Pongco (32) from Ngqeleni outside Mthatha; Constable Sibongiseni Sandlana (32) from Qunu; Warrant Officer Zuko Mbini (45) from Mthatha; and Constable Kuhle Mathetha (27) from Cofimvaba, who graduated from police college in December and was expecting his second salary at the end of the month.

On Thursday Constable Ntsheku’s family was battling to come to terms with their hero’s death.

“We wish the police could apprehend these people. If criminals can ambush and kill police officers like this in a police station, how safe are we in our homes?” said his uncle Robert Ntsheku (53).

He said Zuko was his sister’s eldest child and the family’s breadwinner. He leaves behind his two small children, a grieving mother and six siblings.

Zuko’s mother, Nobesuthu Jentane, stared at the floor and wept uncontrollably as police management led the family in prayer in her home just outside Ngcobo. She was comforted by provincial police commissioner Major General Liziwe Ntshinga, who promised her and the family that police were pursuing the suspects and following up firm leads.

Ntsheku said the family depended on the small salary Zuko earned as a police officer.

“We don’t know what is going to happen to all of us who depended on him to put food on the table. We are very sad about the way he passed on,” he said.

Zuko started working as a policeman in Cape Town before he was transferred to Mthatha and later to Ngcobo where he was killed.

Ntsheku described his nephew as a dedicated and proud policeman who respected his job and always wanted young people to be involved in community activities in the village.

“He was our hero. He loved his job,” he said.

Ntsheku first heard about the attack on the police station on Thursday morning when he received a call from a family member who heard about it on the news. The relative was aware that Zuko normally worked the night shift.

While still organising transport to go to the police station at 8am to find out what had happened, police arrived at his home.

“I confirmed that I knew Zuko and that he was my sister’s son. They told me to take them to find his mother. Before they even broke the news, my sister sensed that they had come to deliver bad news,” he said.

“She started screaming and crying uncontrollably. That is when they told us my nephew had passed on. We will always miss him and his contribution to the family.”

Ntshinga confirmed on Thursday that police were holding a number of suspects for questioning. She said the investigating team had made inroads and a breakthrough within 72 hours.

“By the end of this week we should be able to confirm whether we’ve got the right men or not,” she said, dismissing media reports suggesting that the police had arrested four suspects who were not armed at the time of their arrest.

She said the slain police officers were caught off guard because they thought the people were at the station looking for help and were not there to attack them.

Three officers were fatally shot inside the police station on Wednesday night. Two others were taken as hostages in a police van and executed near Nyanga High School just outside Engcobo before the van was pushed down a gorge with the bodies inside.

Also caught in the crossfire was a retired soldier who was walking home when he was shot.

The suspects are alleged to have bombed a Nedbank ATM, broken into a Capitec Bank ATM and made off with an undisclosed amount of money. They also took 10 firearms from the police station, including six pistols, two shotguns and two R5 rifles and rounds of ammunition, said provincial police spokesperson Captain Khaya Thonjeni.


What can be done to protect police stations and the lives of police officers from such attacks?

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