ARNOLD Freemantle holding one of the guns recovered from the robbers Picture: DOCTOR NGCOBO

Police have arrested a gang of highly armed and dangerous men who went on a crime spree in the Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal.

The men, aged between 25 and 30, started their operations in the Eastern Cape but relocated to Durban after escaping from police custody in April.

Captain Arnold Freemantle and his police task team from the Eastern Cape say that in Durban the gang mainly targeted businesses run by foreigners and where large amounts of cash were known to be held on the premises.

They were responsible for at least 10 major armed robberies in Durban and, in one instance, R200 000 was stolen in a robbery.

However, with the help of the Durban metro police dog unit and a Durban central tactical response team, the Eastern Cape team made a breakthrough at the weekend.

Freemantle said the gang’s reign of terror stretched from the Durban area to Izingolweni in southern KZN and Bizana, Flagstaff and Mount Ayliff in the Eastern Cape.

Although it was uncertain how many people belonged to their network, Freemantle said the main gang consisted of six core members, two of whom were brothers.

In the Eastern Cape the “blue-light gang” stole blue lights from official vehicles, put them on their own vehicles and stopped members of the public, who became their victims.

Freemantle said the men would steal what they could, then tie up their victims and demand their bank codes.

They would be held hostage while other gang members went to an ATM to withdraw their cash. Once this was done they would dump their victims “in a forest” and drive off in their vehicles.

The stolen “posh” cars would then be brought to Durban and sold, mainly to Nigerians and other “immigrants” living in the city, he said.

Freemantle said a task team had been formed to stop them.

The breakthrough came in November when the gang stole a vehicle with a tracking device in Mount Ayliff in the Eastern Cape.

In a shootout, police killed one suspect and arrested five others, who faced charges ranging from hijacking to attempted murder, murder and robbery relating to 16 cases. Four 9mm pistols were recovered and the men were imprisoned in Kokstad’s C-Max prison.

Freemantle said that during their time in Kokstad prison the gang members were taken to courts in Bizana, Flagstaff and Mount Ayliff for various matters.

In April, four of the gang members were in the holding cells of the Flagstaff Magistrate’s Court where they were to appear on charges of murder, armed robbery, hijacking and attempted murder.

However, with the help of a police constable, the men - who were handcuffed and in leg irons - overpowered a policeman and shot him before escaping with his pistol.

Outside the courtroom another policemen was shot and his pistol also stolen. In the ensuing shootout, police killed another suspect.

The other three escaped with the three service pistols, said Freemantle.

The constable who had smuggled a pistol and the handcuff and shackle keys to them was arrested.

Another task team was formed because the previous one had been disbanded after the initial arrest.

Freemantle said the mastermind, Anele “Dodo” Nontenje, had been arrested in Mariannhill.

Nontenje, who had an unlicensed 9mm pistol in his possession, appeared in court in the Eastern Cape on Friday.

On Sunday, the task team picked up new leads and, with the help of Captain Greg Beavon and his colleagues from eThekwini metro police’s dog unit and the Durban Central tactical response team, they started their operation at 8am.

By 2pm they had arrested Nontenje’s brother, Thembile, in Warwick Avenue.

In Cato Crest they arrested a man who claimed the gang had asked him to “look after” a 9mm pistol with 15 rounds.

He was charged with the possession of an unlicensed firearm, which was found to be the same weapon used in the Flagstaff court shootout.

Then they arrested a man in Albert Park who has been linked to a spate of armed robberies in central and south Durban.

Later they moved to Clermont, where they arrested another man for being in possession of an unlicensed firearm.

At 2am on Monday, the team, which had been working nonstop since Sunday morning, moved to J-section in KwaMashu, where another man was arrested for the possession of an unlicensed weapon.

The man said he had been asked “to keep” the weapon and had buried it in his garden, said Freemantle.

The four men arrested on Sunday were expected to appear in court on Tuesday.

Police said another wanted man was still on the run. - The Mercury