POLICE CALL ON ELITE UNIT

The Star, 20 May 2008

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Police have stepped up a gear, and a disaster management system has been unveiled in the latest attempts to quell the xenophobic violence. Now in its ninth day, the official death toll was 22, with at least seven people having died in the past two days. Among the dead are two unidentified men - one "necklaced" and another attacked in Reiger Park on Sunday - and two pupils in Primrose. More than 220 people have been arrested. On Monday, the battle to contain the xenophobic violence continued, with incidents reported in Kya Sand, Reiger Park, Primrose and the Bree Street taxi rank, among others. In Kya Sand, north-west of Joburg, a police helicopter hovered low, flipping from one direction to another - its blades what seemed like centimetres away from screaming residents darting for cover. This took place when the police battled to bring a standoff between local residents and foreigners under control. The violence in this area, which broke out on Sunday afternoon, was apparently sparked by a squabble between a section of local residents who accused a foreigner of robbing a South African woman of her jewellery. Earlier, police were forced to intervene to stop a meeting between the two warring factions from taking place, out of fear that it could turn violent. But with the altercations still continuing, they finally relented and allowed the community leaders, including Democratic Alliance and ANC councillors, to address the groups. Soon after the leaders started addressing them, both groups started pelting each other with stones, bricks and sticks. It was at that time that a police helicopter that had been hovering at Zandspruit, near Honeydew, flew in to disperse the rioting mob. Douglasdale police station Inspector Bala Muthan said four people were taken to Helen Joseph Hospital with serious injuries. At least eight others were arrested on charges of public violence. In central Joburg, many businesses - run by foreigners or people who perceived they would be considered as foreigners - closed as fear of further looting spread. National police spokesperson Sally de Beer said police in greater Joburg would be reinforced by four platoons from the National Intervention Unit: one from the Western Cape, another from KwaZulu Natal and two from Pretoria. She said the unit was specifically trained to deal with medium- to high-risk situations, and while she would not give any details of how they would be deployed, she said they would rectify any shortcomings in the police's reaction. The Gauteng Provincial Disaster Management Centre, launched on Monday, will track the scope and spread of the mob violence. Chief director for disaster management and fire services Colin Deiner said a website, www.precinctweb.com - where citizens could register to donate towards relief efforts, send in reports and share their opinions - had been set up. MEC for Community Safety Firoz Cachalia said the scale of the unrest meant the province was using police officers who weren't trained in crowd control. The violence was not just hatred of foreigners and was not all spontaneous, he added. "There are people who are being drawn into a volatile situation. But there is definitely an element of orchestration," said Cachalia, who would not elaborate. Here are some of the incidents witnessed by Star reporters: Joburg CBD: A group of people stormed the Bree Street taxi rank, breaking into foreigners' shops and looting them. Shop owners grabbed what stock they could and fled. When word spread, many shops in the city closed, as did Chinese-owned stores in Cyrildene and Bruma, and shops along Louis Botha Avenue. Zamimpilo informal settlement, Riverlea: The community fought the flames as a fire from a shack belonging to a Shangaan man spread. "I'm not sure who started the fire, but I am sure it is all about this xenophobic thing that is going on. Now innocent people like me are suffering," Linda Mkefa said. Ramaphosa informal settlement, near Germiston: A police helicopter circled the shacks. Below, police officers ran through the streets of the township. A mob had just set a bakkie alight and fled, but the chopper zoomed in and directed the ground crew to their location. In minutes, the police found the shack they were looking for and arrested nine men. Denver: Police said they dispersed a crowd of about 500 people who were marching from the hostels. The crowd is said to have fired live rounds, to which the police retaliated with rubber bullets. Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders) estimated there were about 7 000 displaced people at police stations in Gauteng. It called on the government to help and protect the victims.