12 deaths in gunfight raise concerns over South Africa's 2010 World Cup
A GUNBATTLE between police and a gang that left 12 people, including four policemen, dead in a crime-weary country inured to daily violence has raised huge questions about whether South Africa is a wise choice to stage the next World Cup, in 2010.
The gunfight began north-west of Johannesburg on Sunday. Some 20 men armed with AK-47 rifles stormed a supermarket, emptied the tills, stripped scores of shoppers of valuables, pistol-whipped one customer and shot another in the leg before fleeing in vehicles. A security guard fired at the gangsters and wounded one, who led police to an abandoned building in the city centre, where the robbers had agreed to meet after the heist.
Police stormed the building after receiving no response to demands that the men give themselves up. The gangsters, hiding under beds and in cupboards, greeted the police with a hail of automatic rifle fire. Police outside had no idea what had happened, but after a five-hour stand-off 13 men emerged with their hands raised.
Inside, eight gang members and four police officers lay dead. Inspector Leonie van Heerden suffered a head wound and her husband, Insp Frikkie van Heerden, was killed. The arrested men will appear in court today to answer various charges, including murder.
The gang is believed to be one of a number operating in the Johannesburg area, hitting targets such as banks and supermarkets on a daily basis, in what Firoz Cachalia, the community safety minister, said amounted to "a guerrilla war on society and law-abiding citizens".
Firearm deaths outnumber even the huge toll of road fatalities in South Africa. Questions are inevitably being asked whether the country can successfully stage the 2010 World Cup, given the levels of violence, creaking transport systems and uncertainties about whether state-of-the-art stadiums can be built on time.
Violence is endemic in the major cities. In Cape Town last week, officials said they were losing the battle to maintain law and order in an increasingly anarchic society as the city is so underpoliced.
Pele, the legendary Brazilian footballer, said after a recent visit to South Africa that he had doubts whether the country would be ready to host the World Cup, citing street crime as a serious problem and suggesting that money allocated for events would go astray.
In a country awash with millions of handguns and light weapons, newspapers daily carry shocking accounts of four-year-olds shooting other children and of husbands shooting wives, as well as the standard sorties against supermarkets by armed criminals.
"Firearms have had really devastating consequences in South Africa," said Judy Bassingthwaighte, the national director of the lobby group Gun-Free South Africa. "We all know someone who's been hijacked at gunpoint ... and gun violence is stealing precious resources from economic and social development."
Faced with questions about South Africa's suitability to hold the 2010 tournament, Joe Phaahla, the head of the organising committee for the African National Congress government, admitted: "Issues of safety and accountability of event organisers need to be tightened."
Tony Leon, the official leader of the Democratic Alliance opposition, said the country was two years behind in its preparations, due to government sluggishness in processing all the legislation necessary for a successful tournament.
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