The slaughter of five police officers and a retired soldier in Ngcobo yesterday morning was the second attack on the police station in less than a year.
Police believe the gang that carried out yesterday’s deadly attack could be the same one that struck in March last year.
But unlike the March attack, where one officer was wounded and an undisclosed number of guns stolen, the assailants in yesterday’s attack left a trail of dead bodies in their wake.
The unknown gunmen stormed the police station and opened fire, killing three officers. They then separated women police officers from the men.
After robbing the station of six pistols, two shotguns and two assault rifles, they killed a retired soldier. After that, they hijacked a police car with two officers in it.
The officers were shot dead execution-style and their bodies dumped near Nyanga High School, about 6km from the station.
Before attacking the police station, the gunmen had bombed an ATM in the town.
The attack, believed to be the deadliest of its kind in South Africa, sent shockwaves around the country, with politicians, police unions, civil society groups and the banking and farming sectors condemning it as a national crisis.
Police have launched a massive manhunt, working with the community in trying to swiftly arrest the dangerous gunmen, and have vowed to take them dead or alive.
Police Minister Fikile Mbalula, who described the mass killing as a “rude awakening to government to ensure that police are protected inside police stations”, gave his officers 72 hours to bring the killers to book.
A police source said: “This is the second time that this is happening here in Ngcobo police station, and I suspect that it is the same suspects who came back.
“When this happened last year, the community said they needed more police officers, but that never happened, and look at what is happening today.”
Last year, in February, a chief traffic officer was shot six times and left seriously injured. His relative was shot dead.
“We are targeted by criminals because we don’t have enough police officers in the area.
“The chief traffic officer was nearly killed by thugs who are yet to be arrested. There’s no respect for police,” the source said.
The situation at the station was tense yesterday, as all the other officers who had been on duty with their slain colleagues were being interviewed by national investigators assigned to the case.
“They won’t be released soon as they are getting counselling and they are also being questioned by the officers,” a police source said.
Eastern Cape police spokesman Captain Khaya Tonjeni said: “Three of the police officers were instantly killed in the police community service centre.
“As the suspects were fleeing, they shot a retired soldier dead and made off with a police van, taking two members with them.
“Two other officers who were on duty were injured and taken to hospital for medical attention.
“They were discharged and reported to be in a stable condition.
“The deceased are all males – a warrant officer and four constables. Five other female members were given trauma counselling.”
Tonjeni confirmed that 10 guns had been taken.
“Approximately 6km from the police station along the road, the bodies of both the officers were found with gunshot wounds.
“The state vehicle has been recovered,” he said.
A shocked Mbalula, who addressed the crowd and the media outside the police station, said security measures should be beefed up at police stations.
“There must be cameras inside police stations and security guards at the gate,” he said.
“Fit metal detectors inside so police can be ready when perpetrators enter and not die like flies.
“Some of the criminals are retired police members and military people. You see how they shot here at Ngcobo police station – they are well trained.”
He said the attack showed that police stations needed to be upgraded and assured Ngcobo residents that the station would not be closed.
“This police station is of importance to the people of Ngcobo. We are aggrieved and shocked by the men [who] came and shot our members here,” Mbalula said.
“Their killing will not be in vain. We are here to pass our condolences and say that we are going to hunt these people down until we find them.”
National police commissioner General Kehla John Sithole said a national multidisciplinary investigative task team, backed by a special tracking team, had been formed.
“They [the criminals] sent us an invitation; we are going to send a response. We want them dead or alive,” he said.
ANC Eastern Cape chairman Oscar Mabuyane said the fact that the attack was not the first time the station had been hit by armed gunmen showed that the attack had been well planned.
He urged the Ngcobo community to work with the police to ensure the perpetrators were arrested.
The town came to a standstill as residents lined the streets leading to the police station, while crime experts combed the scene.
Several residents and business owners called on the government to employ more police officers at the station.
Spargs SuperSPAR store manager Barry Howlett said his business had been hit by armed robbers late last year, resulting in the death of one person.
“This town has become a hotspot for armed robberies and crime in general. We need a strong police presence, especially during the day,” he said.
The South African Banking Risk Information Centre (Sabric), Agri Eastern Cape and Popcru condemned the killings.
“We vigorously condemn this brutal act, and will ensure that law enforcement has our full support to ensure these merciless criminals are brought to book,” Sabric chief executive Kalyani Pillay said.