August 06 2004 at 06:48AM
By Graeme Hosken and Cindy Zeilhofer
Pretoria's supermarkets and shopping complexes are being besieged by gangs of heavily armed thugs who specifically target late-night shoppers.
The gangs, believed to consist of South Africans, Zimbabweans and Mozambicans, are responsible for at least 12 attacks on the capital's shops since April. These have claimed the lives of five people, including a policeman and three robbers, one of whom was a South African Air Force lance-corporal.
Six people, including a 16-year-old Centurion girl, have been seriously injured by the robbers.
The thugs, who operate in groups of 10 to 15, are armed with various weapons, including semi-automatic machine-guns and pistols.
The robbers, believed to live and operate from outside of the city, operate in a number of groups targeting stores scattered throughout the Greater Tshwane area.
The latest attack to be orchestrated by the robbery syndicate, believed to consist of more than 50 members, took place on Saturday night at the Garsfontein Pick 'n Pay.
Between 10 and 15 men armed with handguns and an Uzi sub-machine gun stormed into the store shortly before closing time, attacking staff and customers.
As the men fled, a customer opened fire on the robbers, shooting two dead.
Three men were taken in for questioning shortly afterwards and several weapons, including an Uzi, were recovered.
The Pretoria News has learnt that police are investigating the possibility that this gang is responsible for a number of the attacks which began in April.
The Pretoria police communications office refused to divulge the number of attacks on shopping centres and supermarkets because of the crime statistics moratorium, or reveal the number of people arrested for the attacks because of the sensitivity of the investigations.
However, the Pretoria News has, through its own records from articles published, established that the first attack allegedly committed by the syndicate occurred on April 13 followed by attacks on May 2, May 5, May 9, May 16, May 26, May 27, June 24 and June 27 with the last occurring on July 31.
These attacks claimed the lives of Inspector Riaan Nortje, 38, and Jurie Kemp, along with three robbers, and left Kemp's wife Tina, Centurion teenager Charne Vermeulen, 16, William Songo, 30, cash-in-transit guard Michael Mokwela and Centurion Game Store employee Grace Makhubela seriously injured.
The attacks have sparked an outcry by shopping complex and supermarket owners who are demanding that police do something to put an end to them.
"We are worried that this is going on because these groups seem to be targeting our shops.
"Every second store is being hit and we do not know what is going on," said Jacques Goosen, a Wilgers Spar store manager.
Goosen said these hits were affecting business and that they had noted a "definite decrease in the number of customers shopping after 6pm".
"If you look at the robberies most of them have happened at about 6.30pm to 7pm. People are too scared to shop at night any longer," he said.
Riaan Bester, Atterbury Super Spar manager, said the store had their own security, "specifically at night".
"The police also work together with us. Often we will phone them during cash up times and they will send a car to park outside."
"We have to have a strong police and security presence because we have to protect our business and our customers," he said.
Bester said the Newlands Spar, as well as the Garsfontein Quick Spar, had been hit in the past six months. Elardus Park Spar was also hit last year.
Floris von Zweel, of Garsfontein Spar, said they were hit in December, and again two months ago.
Police Inspector Percy Morokane said investigations by the Pretoria Serious and Violent Crimes Unit into the attacks were at a very sensitive stage.
He declined to comment on the cases for fear of jeopardising the investigations.
Morokane said if people found themselves in a store which was being attacked they should obey the instructions of the suspects, not resist. "Try to take notice of as many details of your attackers as possible, such as clothing, characteristics, height, built, tattoos and anything else that you can remember which will help police," he said.
Morokane said anyone with information on the identity or whereabouts of the robbers could contact the Serious and Violent Crimes Unit on (012) 334 4421 or Crime Stop 08600 10111.