Five people were shot dead and over 40 suspects arrested after a heavily-armed group stormed a prominent South African church near here and held several people hostage reportedly following a battle between two factions over its leadership. Police reportedly freed about 200 people who had taken refuge inside International Pentecostal Holiness Church in Zuurbekom, west of here after attackers arrived in several vehicles in the early hours of Saturday and began shooting randomly inside and outside the church.
National police spokesperson Brigadier Vish Naidoo said that four men were shot and burnt in a vehicle just outside the church and a fifth man, believed to be a security guard who had responded to a call, was shot in another car.
Six other people were injured.
He said swift reaction by the police had averted what could have become “a bloodbath.” “We have arrested over 41 suspects, including six who were injured and were taken to hospital. We also seized over 40 firearms, including rifles, shotguns and handguns,” Naidoo said.
The attack by a group of armed people “may have been motivated by a feud” between church members, the police statement said.
The church is one of the largest – and reportedly richest – in South Africa.
Among those arrested were members of the police, defence forces and correctional services.
“Among those arrested are a member of the South African Police Service, a member of the South African Defence Force, a member of the Johanensburg Metropolitan Police Department, as well as a member fo the Department of Correctional Services,” Naidoo said.
“We don’t know exactly what the role of those members was in this incident, but investigations will be conducted to determine that.” The chairman of the church, Abiel Wesse, told local media that some of the assailants were known to the members of his church.
“Our church is under siege from this other group who run the Jerusalem church nearby,” Wesse said.
There has apparently been conflict for some time between two groups within the church in a leadership struggle.