THE police have nabbed four suspects who are part of a notorious syndicate that killed seven people including its own gang member during a three-month reign of terror around Maseru this year.
The four suspects aged from 19 to 23 and known as the Masite gang were separately arrested last week following several attacks they made on supermarkets and business people.
Several supermarkets in Maseru fell victim to the syndicate which demanded groceries and cash at gunpoint. The gang did not hesitate to shoot and kill whenever they encountered resistance. Police estimate that the gang stole groceries worth more than M20 000 and cash amounting to M30 000.
Within a period of three months, they killed seven people, including one of their own after he had opted out of the criminal activities.
Police yesterday described the gang’s style of operation as amateurish, as in most cases, hard-core criminals avoid loss of life during their operations. Among the victims is a Ha-Abia businessman who was shot and killed on 21 February by the gang who got away with an unspecified amount of money.
The gang is also accused of gunning down a man near a service station in Thetsane and getting away with his cash and mobile phone.
Police Spokesperson, Superintendent Mpiti Mopeli, said following the arrest, they recovered two unlicensed firearms which were used in the commission of the violent crimes.
“The arrest came as a result of concerted efforts by the police and the public who were losing sleep over the attacks in areas including Lithabaneng, Lithoteng, Ha-Abia and Ha Thetsane where this gang was operating,” Supt Mopeli said.
He said that following a hype over the investigations of high-profile cases involving military and police personnel over the past six months, some criminals mistakenly thought they had an opportunity to perpetrate serious crimes ranging from fraud, stock theft, housebreaking and theft to murder.
“If we analyse the crime pattern over the past six months, there has been a disturbing trend. We can see from the formation of the Masite gang, which we believe started operating in Maseru in January. Some criminals must have thought that police attention was mainly on the high-profile cases, which was not the case. There has been an increase in some type of crimes in some parts of the country, which we can partly attribute to the same notion,” Supt Mopeli said.
He said the reality was that in January the police upped their game and launched a series of new crime prevention strategies.
He said they also recently arrested four suspects aged from 23 to 53 who were manipulating a mobile phone cash facility to steal from users.
“We can see that criminals are coming up with new sophisticated ideas to commit crime. In most of their operations, they work with an insider if they want to target a certain sector, system or company. We urge companies to constantly monitor their systems, particularly those that deal with cash for them to quickly identify anomalies or peculiar activities.
“In this case, the suspects engaged the services of an employee at the mobile phone company who assisted them to identify people with cash in their mobile money accounts. A fake notification of a money transfer would then be sent to unsuspecting account holders.
“Minutes later, one of the suspects would call the victim to explain that money was erroneously deposited into their accounts before requesting them to make a refund. Several people were duped, only to realise something was wrong when they checked their accounts or when they wanted to make a transaction,” Supt Mopeli said.
The mobile money sector has not been the only target for criminals and some taxi operators recently expressed concern that it had now become dangerous to operate at certain times in some areas in Maseru.
One operator said carjackers had become more brazen, working in groups and pretending to be passengers, only for them to later push the driver out of his car.
Police investigations have shown that some of the stolen taxis continue operating in Maseru using fake number plates.
One taxi operator said he was one of the few lucky taxi operators after he recovered his vehicle which was stolen in February.
He said he lost his car to a ‘client’ who later pointed a gun to his face when they reached Masowe.
The police subsequently found that the car was still being used by the suspect’s friend as a taxi in Maseru.
“The fact that they did not even bother repainting the car to try and make identification difficult just shows how confident the suspects were that they will not be caught. I suspect these criminals could be working with some taxi operators,” Supt Mopeli said, adding that the suspects had only replaced the number plate with a fake one.
“We are conducting visibility exercises on the Ha-Thetsane to Masowe and the Khubetsoana to Ha-Foso routes where we believe the carjackers operate at night. We also urge taxi operators to avoid plying such areas late at night unless they are certain of their safety.”
Countrywide, Supt Mopeli said the police had intensified special operations focusing on increased visibility and the participation of communities in crime prevention activities.
He said Maputsoe was one hot spot that has kept the police and the local communities busy owing to an increase in robberies, stabbings and common assaults associated with alcohol and drug abuse.
“The community policing strategy has become more important in the enhanced crime fight in the urban areas and also in the hard to reach areas such as Qabane in Mohale’s Hoek and Lebakeng in Qacha’s Nek,” he said.