BEREA — Three South African men aged 35, 36 and 53 died in a shoot-out with security forces after attempting to rob a money transfer company in Maseru.
Another 29-year-old was injured in the crossfire.
The suspected robbers, who were travelling in two get-away cars, a minibus and a twin-cab truck, were chased by members of the Lesotho Defence Force (LDF) and the Lesotho Mounted police Service (LMPS).
The LMPS’s District Commissioner of Maseru Urban, Senior Sup Mofokeng Kolo, said police followed the gang after a tip-off.
“After the tip-off the police saw and heard one of the men, a 39-year-old Mosotho talking about the plan to attack. He was apprehended. He later led the police and members of the LDF to the rest of the men,” Kolo said.
He said once the men spotted the police they fled in their vehicles.
“The police and the soldiers came after them. They started shooting at the members of the security forces and an exchange of gunfire began,” he said.
He said that one of the men fell from a vehicle after he was shot by the police. He was caught and was rushed to hospital.
The men were pursued to Khubetsoana where they hid.
“But soon the forces found them and there was exchange of fire. Three men died while others are believed to have fled after abandoning their vehicles. Two AK47 rifles and ammunition, a 9mm pistol loaded with 12 bullets and reflex gear branded with the South Africa Police Services (SAPS) logo were confiscated,” he said.
Kolo said there were allegations that the same gang could have been linked to the robberies at the U-Save store at Ha-Thetsane about three months ago.
He also said the SAPS reflex gear had raised suspicions that some of the men could be members of the SAPS.
However, he said investigations will reveal all other details and the true identities of the culprits.
Khubetsoana residents said their area had resembled a military battlefield during the incident on Monday.
Hundreds of residents who spent most of the day around the scenes where the dead men were lying said they had to dive for cover during the shootout.
“We were so scared when the shooting began. Soldiers and police officers were running around with big guns in their hands,” said one villager who refused to be named.
An eyewitness,who was in a taxi, said their vehicle had to stop when one of the suspects crossed the road in front of the taxi with police in hot pursuit.
“Our driver had to stop to let him pass. He looked so tired and scared. Men holding guns came after him. Soon after they passed we head multiple gun shots,” said the witness.
Another villager said he almost came face-to-face with one of the men who was later shot dead when he passed by his door fleeing from the police.
Others said they were forced out of their houses by members of the security forces to search for suspects.
Meanwhile, two LDF members have been arrested in connection with this foiled robbery.
The LDF’s Public Affairs Officer, Major Ntlele Ntoi, said in a statement that the two soldiers of the ranks of Private and Second Lieutenant were in military detention pending investigations on their alleged participation in the crime.
Ntoi said it was suspected that the Private was present when the group tried to approach the money transfer agency while the Second Lieutenant was involved during the planning phase in which he is alleged to have contributed intelligence and offered material assistance.
Ntoi said about 10 suspects were still at large. He discouraged everyone from hiding the suspects in their homes.
“The Command appeals to the residents not to transform their homes into hideouts for the criminals because the security forces intend to wipe out these criminals wherever they are found,” said Ntoi.
“The LDF advises all who took part in this conspiracy to hand themselves in, together with all the weapons and everything that was used in this heinous activity of armed robbery and attempted killing of the members of the Lesotho Security Forces.”