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By Alex Eliseev, Solly Maphumulo and Botho Molosankwe
Inspector Leonie van Heerden's face was covered in blood and tears. Although she was lucky to survive a bloody shootout with a gang of 22 robbers, her tears were not those of relief: her husband and colleague, Frikkie, was among four policemen who died in a hail of bullets during a stand-off with the robbers on Sunday.
Eight alleged robbers, some of them toting AK-47s, also died in the dramatic shootout at a house in Jeppestown, Johannesburg. After a five-hour stand-off, the other 14 surrendered when the police's Special Task Force was called in.
The dead policemen were all from the West Rand's Flying Squad and Dog Unit.
The drama began when the gang robbed a Pick 'n Pay store in Honeydew at about 10am. The gang pistol-whipped a customer and fled with an undisclosed amount of cash.
One customer was shot in the leg during the incident.
Police arrested one of the fleeing gang members and he led them to a house in Jeppestown where the robbers had apparently planned to meet after the heist.
An hour later the members of the Johannesburg and West Rand dog units and flying squads tried to arrest the robbers who were hiding in the house at the corner of Main and Mordaunt streets. A bloody shootout ensued.
The gang, armed with high-powered weapons, including AK-47s, opened fire on the cops. Witnesses said the shootout, resembling a war zone, lasted for almost half an hour.
The robbers stood their ground. The police retreated and called for back-up. Later, Special Task Force members and police officers from nearby stations arrived at the scene. By 1pm streets in the area were cordoned off.
Some people gathered in the streets, while others looked through their windows. Snipers scaled the high buildings.
The emergency personnel set up a mobile hospital with 10 stretchers. The stand-off grew tense, and more bloody confrontation seemed inevitable.
A reporter overheard a policeman angrily saying: "A policeman has died. There is nothing to talk about." He was responding to a question whether negotiations had been conducted with the gunmen in the house.
But, in a surprising turnabout, 14 of the gang members finally emerged from their hideout with their arms over their heads. They were immediately arrested and taken away.
At about 5pm the police secured the crime scene and restored order to the streets, where hundreds of onlookers had gathered. At one point police sprayed teargas at the crowd and shoved the onlookers with rifles.
Gauteng Police Commissioner Perumal Naidoo was close to tears when he addressed the media just before 6pm.
"Today is a very sad day. We've lost four police officers," an emotional Naidoo said, adding that two police officers were injured in the morning shootout.
"We took out eight of the robbers dead. Fourteen handed themselves over. I'm convinced this gang of robbers were causing havoc across our province and were involved in other robberies," he said.
"I'm proud of these four policemen who paid with their lives to ensure Gauteng will be safe for the people who live here."
Naidoo declined to comment on whether the policemen had been set up or walked into an ambush.
Earlier in the day police said several of their colleagues were held hostage inside the house, but Naidoo denied this. He described the shootout as "one big fight with no hostages".
"I summoned every available police officer in the province," he said.
But for some of Naidoo's men the tragedy proved too emotional.
A policewoman sat in her patrol car and sobbed. Her colleague, who was in tears too, comforted her.
"They're dead. They're dead," she mumbled.