Durban - In a major breakthrough in the reign of terror on the N2 near Higginson Highway, 10 men were arrested on Wednesday in connection with a spate of robberies, smash-and-grabs and brick-throwing incidents.
A crack team of SAPS and metro police officers also managed to hunt down some of the loot, luring one of the suspects by tracing calls made on a stolen cellphone and then contacting him with the offer of a job. His arrest led police to other suspects - and the recovery of stolen handbags, credit cards as well as a cellphone and SIM cards.
More arrests are expected as police follow up on leads.
After months of attacks on motorists in the area, the breakthrough came on Wednesday, two days after the Daily News’s front page report on the harrowing ordeal of the Bartie family, whose toddler son escaped with his life after a brick thrown from the roadside smashed through the window of his parents’ car, next to his baby seat.
The robbers were so brazen that they robbed a man waiting for his lift club near the Higginson Highway Bridge on Wednesday morning - while police were handing out crime awareness pamphlets to motorists at the nearby traffic lights.
They chased after the robbers who escaped through a tunnel that runs under the N2, while one ran across the freeway, through traffic.
Police, who described the escape route under the N2 as a “tunnel of hell” - it is unlit, ankle deep in rubbish-filled water - pursued the robbers along the culvert, which splits into two directions, one leading to Lamontville.
According to police who have arrested suspects in the area previously, the robbers survey the N2 and highway from a vantage point near the intersection, an embankment next to the train lines that run on a bridge over Higginson Highway.
It is “a chilling area” where robbers smoke whoonga while they watch for targets. The stones and rocks they use to throw at cars or smash windows are taken from the railway line.
Police said the robbers had formed three specialised gangs - targeting cars for smash-and-grabs; smashing car windows hoping the startled motorists stop so they can rob them; and mugging street hawkers and pamphlet distributors at the intersection.
They then pretend to hand out pamphlets or sell fruit. When they notice items lying on car seats and people chatting on their cellphones while the traffic lights are red, they pounce.
Police spokesman Colonel Jay Naicker said the investigation was still at an early stage and more arrests were expected.
The arrested men, from Lamontville, could face a range of charges including robbery, attempted hijacking and malicious damage to property, he said.
Chris van den Berg, the Community Police Forum (CPF) sector-policing chairman for Yellowwood Park and Woodhaven, commended police for their excellent work.
“It was not an overnight operation, but a carefully planned one. The issue came up at CPF meetings and it made motorists fear the intersection,” he said.
There have been numerous attacks on motorists in the N2/Higginson Highway area recently.
Ordeal leaves family traumatised
On Sunday, a family were robbed while changing a flat tyre under a pedestrian bridge on the N2.
One of the victims, who asked to be identified only as Ray, said he, his wife and son had been travelling to Isipingo.
While his son changed the tyre, five men approached them.
“They said: ‘Boss, we are here to help you,’ then pulled out knives. The windows were slightly open so they unlocked the door and took what they could from the car and also robbed my son and wife. They also took the spare tyre and coolly walked off,” Ray said, adding that the ordeal had left his family traumatised.
After his cellphone was stolen, he said he contacted his cellphone provider and obtained printouts of the phone records since Sunday. He discovered someone was using his phone and SIM card so he called the police.
“We zoned in on the people he was calling. We then rang one person he was calling and phoned to offer him a job. The man came over for an interview and that’s how police arrested him and found the phone and SIM card. From there police made more arrests and linked the men to several crimes,” Ray said.
A crack team from Montclair SAPS vehicle tracking unit, the KwaDukuza policing cluster and metro police spent the whole of on Wednesday tracing and arresting suspects and recovering stolen items.