- Five people were shot dead and 40 arrested during a hostage drama at the International Pentecost Holiness Church in Zuurbekom in the early hours of Saturday.
- Outside the church, there were bloodstains and remnants of two cars that were set alight.
- It is alleged that members of a church splinter group who wants to forcefully take leadership of the church were responsible for the mayhem.
An eyewitness who escaped death when the headquarters of the International Pentecost Holiness Church came under heavy fire in the early hours of Saturday has thanked God for sparing his life.
Five people died in the attack in Zuurbekom, west of Johannesburg, which left a trail of blood and the smouldering shells of two burnt-out cars outside the church premises.
Four were shot and burnt inside the cars while the fifth, a security guard who wanted to assist, was shot dead inside his patrol vehicle.
Outside the church's main gates, a bus that was allegedly driven by the assailants was parked next to a heap of clothing.
Some church members held hostage were freed by the police's Special Task Force in the early hours of Saturday.
Various law enforcement officers, including South African Defence Force (SANDF) soldiers, descended on the church.
While there, a group of congregants was prevented from approaching the church.
According to the eyewitness, who did not want to be named, he and others were asleep at church when they were awoken by gunshots emanating from outside.
"It was around midnight when I was awoken by a number of gunshots. As a church marshal, I ran towards the gate and saw many cars parking outside. I alerted others church members who were inside through a loudspeaker that we are under attack," he told News24 from the scene of the hostage drama.
The man said:
The eyewitness said he and others then left the church and ran towards the gate and saw about 16 other men heavily armed with guns and rifles.
The gunmen were all wearing orange reflector jackets.
"They shouted at us that all is in order. They got closer and asked us where Aaron, Masweetie and Mphahlele were. We then managed to flee outside the headquarters for safety and they continued firing bullets at the other side of the church," said the eyewitness.
IPHC executive committee chairperson Abbey Wessie said the assailants were part of a splinter group who have been against the current church leadership since the death of the church's leader, Reverend Glayton Modise, in 2016.
Wessie claimed some of the attackers belonged to a splinter group wanting to take over the church.
Splinter group wants to 'take over' church
"They wanted to capture our headquarters and take control of the church as they had earlier claimed. This is the same group of people who took us to court recently over our leadership and the matter is currently before court.
"We are awaiting the hearing date. They are impatient and can't wait for the court processes to unfold. Our lives are at risk. We want the law to take its course. The only cure to this problem is for the court to speed up processes and finalise this leadership battle," said Wessie.
Wessie claimed that, in April, he escaped with a wound to his right arm, after his car was sprayed with seven bullets while driving in the Brits area.
He said since the incident he has been receiving deaths threats, with the latest issued on Saturday morning.
Wessie claimed he had received a call from a private number where the caller threatened him that his days were numbered.
Police spokesperson Brigadier Vish Naidoo on Saturday said police had arrested over 40 suspects, including six people who have been taken to hospital.
"Among those arrested are members of SAPS, SANDF, JMPD and the Department of Correctional Services. Over 34 firearms including five rifles, 16 shotguns and 13 pistols have also been seized," Naidoo said.
IPHC has been in the headlines after it was embroiled in a battle over money and leadership.
In 2018, 12 cars belonging to church members were severely damaged when two groups clashes outside its headquarters.
Three people were injured during the skirmish and police seized a loaded firearm.