Behind the shootout<br>

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Behind the shootout

Postby GOSA » Thu, 2006-07-06 09:20

Behind the shootout
Tumi Makgetla
30 June 2006 07:09

The illegal automatic firearms wielded by criminals in Sunday’s Jeppestown, Johannesburg, shootout have thrown a frightening spotlight on the hundreds of thousands of illegal weapons in circulation in South Africa.

Although the South African Police Services have recovered more illegal firearms than those lost or stolen in the past six years -- 170 000 compared to 138 000 -- researchers believe 95% of the country’s illegal weapons remain at large.

After the shootout following a robbery at a Pick ’n Pay outlet, which left four policemen and eight suspected robbers dead, police found a cache of 13 weapons in the house where the shootout took place. Many were automatic.

AK-47s are not used by the South African Police or the South African National Defence Force, except for familiarisation purposes, and their presence in South Africa is illegal under firearms law, said Ben Coetzee, a senior researcher at the Institute for Security Studies (ISS).

Recent high-profile violent crimes, including the airport heist in March and the apparent assassination of a police reservist in Johannesburg last week, have also involved AK-47s and other automatic weapons.

The use of AK-47s by robbers in retail outlet heists is a particularly worrying development. Coetzee pointed out that they were the “weapons of choice” in such crimes as cash-in-transit robberies where the target vehicles are armoured and the security personnel armed.

After Sunday’s shootout, Safety and Security Minister Charles Nqakula said the robbers were suspected of having undergone military training. Charles Goredema, head ISS researcher into organised crime, said this could refer to training by Umkhonto weSizwe (MK) and the Azanian People’s Liberation Army (Apla), the South African National Defence Force or the armed forces of neighbouring countries.

For historical reasons, South Africa has an abnormal quota of ex-soldiers, some of whom appear to have kept their weapons. The downsizing of the post-apartheid military melded from the old South African Defence Force, MK and Apla returned as many as 80 000 trained men to the streets. The dissolution of former homeland forces left 14 000 firearms reported missing in the former Transkei and hundreds of guns in the former Ciskei. The police reported that 116 tons of firearms were given to the Inkatha Freedom Party before 1994 -- only six tons had been recovered by 2003.

Coetzee said he did not believe smuggling of automatic weapons from neighbouring countries was a major problem. Police reported 89 seizures of firearms and ammunition at South African borders in the past year.

Mozambique and the Democratic Republic of Congo are known to have been sources of AK-47s and sub-machine guns in the recent past, Goredema said.

The security threat to the region posed by the firearms left by the Mozambican civil war prompted a bilateral initiative between the Mozambican and South African governments, named Operation Rachel.

In operations in Mozambique in 2004, South African police destroyed 426 handguns, 223 sub-machine guns, 1 661 rifles and 143 light and heavy machine guns, as well as mortar bombs, grenades and explosives.

However, most illegal guns appear to have been stolen or lost in South Africa, says Guy Andrews of Gun Free South Africa. In the past financial year, 15 837 firearms were reported to police as lost or stolen, according to the police.

The police reported 30 guns missing and the military reported the loss or theft of 21. The province with the highest number of firearms to go missing was Gauteng, with 7 000 lost or stolen. Over that period, however, the police recovered 23 813.

Between 1999 and 2005, a further 121 957 were lost or stolen, according to the ISS, while the police recovered 146 053.

Commentators and police emphasise that the total number of recovered firearms includes guns lost or stolen in earlier years.

In 1999, about 500 000 illegal small arms were in circulation in South Africa, with most being handguns, according to government. This means that barely 5% of the illegal firearms in circulation have been recovered.

“The police are making headway, but it’s a slow and tedious process,” said Coetzee, who, like most analysts, said the number of illegal guns in circulation was unknown.

A new target

South Africa’s retail outlets are being targeted by larger, more ruthless and more heavily armed criminal gangs, prompting Business Against Crime (BAC) to launch a new intelligence-gathering forum to combat the robberies.

The military-style gang involved in a Pick ’n Pay robbery and subsequent shootout in Jeppestown, Johannesburg, last Sunday also underscored the higher levels of organisation associated with retail robberies, said security analysts, echoing government statements.

Kenny Fihla, CEO of BAC, said that in April alone there had been a 20% increase in retail robberies -- of shops and in shopping centres -- compared to the same period last year.

While bank robberies have decreased over the past four years, Fihla said, post offices, petrol outlets and cash-in-transit vehicles had also suffered more robberies in that period.

The gangs targeting shops were now more heavily armed and prepared to shoot, while gang sizes had increased from about eight to between 15 and 25 members. “Certainly there has been an increase in the use of automatic weapons and the nature of those robberies has become more daring,” said Fihla.

Coordinating 20 gang members in a single heist required a relatively high level of organisation, commented Institute for Security Studies researcher Ben Coetzee.

He said that the 20-man gang responsible for Sunday’s shootout appeared to have had military-type training. “They had a method. They did not only hide in the house, but used tactical manoeuvres to defend themselves and ambush police,” he said.

BAC and eight other parties, including the South African Reserve Bank and the Casinos Association for South Africa, have set up a forum to share information. Previous intelligence-sharing initiatives have been specific to sectors such as the banking and the cash transporting businesses. -- Tumi Makgetla
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