Durban - A LOCAL councillor and taxi association have lambasted the police for allegedly using stun grenades and brandishing automatic weapons in a minibus taxi rank at Phoenix Plaza on Monday.
Several SAPS units and Durban metro police converged on the bus and taxi rank, closing off the road and surrounding the parking area.
Hundreds of shoppers inside the mall, street traders and pedestrians on Pandora, Pegasus and Parthenon streets took cover when they heard the bangs of grenades.
Witnesses said people were running in fear that armed robbers had targeted a business in the area.
However, KwaZulu-Natal police spokesperson Captain Nqobile Gwala said a robbery had not taken place and that the incident was a simulation operation.
A stun grenade (flash grenade, flashbang or sound bomb) is a non-lethal explosive device used to temporarily disorient an enemy’s senses.
Durban metro police spokesperson Parboo Sewpersad referred questions to the SAPS.
Police checked taxi route permits and drivers’ licences during the operation.
Speaking to the Daily News anonymously, bus and taxi drivers said police had searched them in front of passengers. More than a dozen drivers were told to lie on the ground, hands behind their heads.
“It was unnecessary. I’m 70. Surely the police can tell between a criminal and an honest citizen? The floor also has spit, dirt and the tarmac was very hot. They won’t try this in another taxi rank,” a taxi employee said.
Phoenix Minibus Taxi Association (PTA) spokesperson Ashley Singh said they noted with great disappointment the manner in which the operation was carried out by joint law enforcement entities.
“While it’s being masked as a simulation activity, the PTA believes the level of violence and abuse meted out by the officers point to something else which falls outside the official application of law enforcement,” Singh said.
He said the PTA respected law enforcement operations but this was the first time its drivers, owners and patrons had been subjected to the police’s use of stun grenades and the carrying of automatic rifles.
He said police had interrogated members on whether they were preventing Uber and other private taxis from working in the area.
“Innocent passengers were made to lie face-down in the dirt and rank managers were viciously assaulted by balaclava-clad officers,” he said.
“This breaks the level of trust that the public and taxi operators have in the police. This is a serious concern considering that Phoenix is rife with drug lords,” Singh added.
A woman who gave her name only as Shireen said she was in a clothing store with her 9-year-old son when she heard what sounded like gunshots.
“People were running towards the exits and into one another. The store manager quickly closed the doors. Everyone was so scared.
“Two women almost fainted in shock in the store. People were in tears phoning their families to tell them to stay away from the Plaza,” Shireen said.
Phoenix councillor Bradley Singh said the incident was unacceptable.
“Setting off stun grenades and endangering the lives of the public caused panic at this time of the year when shopping malls are full of people. Whether or not the operation by the law enforcement agencies was planned, it can’t be tolerated.
“The police must answer for their actions. A full report will be requested from the cluster commander and the MEC for safety.”