Durban - Three policemen who helped foil a robbery near Pinetown on Wednesday are being investigated for attempted murder after they opened fire on a passing car, hitting a teenager in the head.
A factory worker was shot dead in the crossfire between police and robbers while a pedestrian was killed after being hit by a motorist who ws attempting to flee the scene.
Four others - including three robbers - were hurt.
Sherian Naidoo, 18, underwent an emergency operation at the Inkosi Albert Luthuli Central Hospital on Wednesday night to remove a blood clot in her head.
The bullet grazed her head. She is reported to be in a stable condition.
The drama began early on Wednesday in the Westmead industrial area near Pinetown when four men tried to hold up a chemical factory.
Police officers from Crime Intelligence, Pinetown SAPS and the Tactical Response Team - acting on a tip-off - had set themselves up at strategic positions near the factory and waited for the gang to pounce.
Police sources said the four suspects arrived in two vehicles, a Toyota Tazz and Corolla, at about 6.30am. As they neared the factory, the police officers approached.
“They just started shooting,” said a police source. “Our members fired back. They sped off, all the while continuing shooting.”
The robbers abandoned the Tazz and got into the Corolla and sped towards Pinetown, with the police in hot pursuit.
They darted through peak traffic, speeding along Crompton Street and into Caversham Street.
Naidoo’s boyfriend, Mergan Govender, 24, was dropping her off at work in Pinetown when they came under fire from police.
Govender said his car was “shot up” by police who probably assumed they were robbers after he accidentally knocked down a man who had run in front of his green Toyota Tazz - just as he heard gunshots.
He did not know then that police had been pursuing a car with four armed suspects and had been shooting at its tyres to bring the vehicle to a halt.
Govender said he continued driving after he heard the gunshots, as he feared for his and his girlfriend’s safety, but that a marked police vehicle began pursuing him.
He claimed that police began shooting at his car, which has dark tinted windows, without any warning, in the vicinity of Voortrekker and Creak streets.
“I stopped the car and jumped off. The policemen in the van continued shooting. I screamed, ‘I am innocent, leave us alone’. The van stopped in front of me. One of the policemen twisted my arm and put me down on the floor.”
Govender said Naidoo then jumped from the passenger seat and yelled at the officers to leave him alone.
She also protested their innocence. That’s when he noticed blood trickling down the right side of her face.
He said he was not sure who called for an ambulance, which arrived within a minute of the shooting.
“My car was riddled with between nine and 15 bullets including two shots through the front windscreen. Bullet holes were found in the right tyre arch and above the petrol tank,” he said.
“The police officers picked up the shells of the bullets, disrupting the crime scene.”
Govender said he took pictures of the scene but the policemen grabbed his hand, took the phone and deleted the pictures.
“They know where I live and I fear for my life.”
The shoot-out and chase with the robbers continued into Creak Street in Ashley, where a police officer shot out the tyres, sending the car into a tailspin.
Outnumbered and with a police dragnet closing in on them, the injured suspects surrendered near the intersection of Creak and Voortrekker streets.
One of the robbers is believed to have jumped out of the vehicle during the chase and fled.
The police source said initial reports suggested he might have been picked up by a white bakkie.
Police launched a manhunt for the robber.
Investigators were profiling the arrested men to see if they were linked to any other crimes.
Police found two firearms - a CZ 9mm pistol with 15 rounds and a Z88 pistol with two magazines and 30 rounds - on them.
Police spokesman, Colonel Jay Naicker, said the arrested men were between 34 and 39 years old and were expected to appear in the Pinetown Magistrate’s Court soon.
Justin Bosse, chairman of the Ashley residents neighbourhood watch, said the gunshots startled residents, who flooded the local security call centre with panicked calls.
“There were quite a number of shots. Within seconds everybody was on to the two-way radios and enquiring about them,” he said.
Bosse said traffic in the area, usually teeming with parents dropping off children at a nearby primary school, had to be rerouted.
On Wednesday night, Govender said the noise of the bullets hitting his car was still ringing in his ears.
“It was traumatising and I am lucky I was not shot,” he said.
“I thought I was going to die as I held my head below the steering wheel.”
Naidoo’s relative, Reshad Essop, also claimed he saw certain irregularities at the scene.
He works in Pinetown and arrived at the scene minutes after Govender alerted him to the shooting.
“The policemen had removed their name badges and picked up spent cartridges from the ground. A senior policeman arrived and conducted a bullet count on the three policemen’s firearms after they had initially denied shooting at Govender’s car,” he said.
“Why did police use deadly force? Why did they shoot when they were not being shot at? Justice must be done,” he said.
“Govender was driving to save his life. He was treated like a criminal at the scene and while being interviewed at the (police) station.”
Govender lodged a charge of attempted murder at the Pinetown police station.
The station’s spokeswoman, Lieutenant Bongumusa Manqele, said a green Toyota Tazz was also at the scene during the shooting and had sped off.
“Police pursued the vehicle and asked them to stop but they did not. Police then opened fire on the vehicle.
“One passenger was wounded,” she said.
“A case of attempted murder has been opened against the three police officers involved.”
Naidoo works as an administrative clerk for a Pinetown firm.
Her cousin, Veshika Jamond, said they had spent the entire day outside the hospital praying for Naidoo’s speedy recovery.
Additional reporting by Kamcilla Pillay