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Police in shootout with suspected cell tower thieves

Admire Moyo
By Admire Moyo, ITWeb's news editor.
Johannesburg, 16 Aug 2019
A battery and cables recovered by SAPS following a shootout with suspects. (Source: SAPS)
A battery and cables recovered by SAPS following a shootout with suspects. (Source: SAPS)

A suspected cellphone tower battery thief was shot dead yesterday as the South African Police Services (SAPS) takes the war to the criminals that are increasingly targeting mobile operators’ base stations.

In a statement, the SAPS says in an incident involving cable theft, police at KwaMsane, KwaZulu-Natal, were conducting a stop-and-search operation in the early hours of Thursday when they responded to an alarm activated at a cellphone tower in Mchakwini.

The officers then spotted two men cutting cables.

According to SAPS, the men allegedly opened fire on police and a shootout ensued. The men disappeared into the bushes and after seizing numerous items on the scene, including cables and a battery, police searched the surrounding area and found the body of a man who was shot during the incident.

Police hope to make other arrests.

Meanwhile, Pietermaritzburg police on Wednesday searched a vehicle and found suspected stolen cables inside worth R750 000.

KZN police spokesperson captain Nqobile Gwala said the vehicle was found in Dales Street and when they approached it, the occupants fled. When searching the vehicle, police found the cables.

Further investigation uncovered the car was stolen at KwaMashu this month, says SAPS.

The incidents come as South African mobile operators lament the increasing cases of theft and vandalism at base stations that are costing them hundreds of millions of rands.

ITWeb recently interviewed local mobile network operators about thefts at base stations, and they all said criminal syndicates are becoming more brazen and are increasingly targeting base stations, stealing or vandalising critical infrastructure like batteries, copper cables and diesel.

Cables recovered during the SAPS operation. (Source: SAPS)
Cables recovered during the SAPS operation. (Source: SAPS)

Yesterday, MTN said it recovered batteries to the value of almost R1 million in the past week alone, thanks to the involvement of the SAPS, security personnel and ordinary South Africans.

The rate of vandalism and theft, especially multiple repeat incidents, sometimes forces the operators to abandon base stations due to unviable replacement costs, thereby adversely impacting network availability or quality in some areas.

MTN data shows that as many as 89 cell towers across the country are on hold as they await replacement batteries and maintenance fixes.

The mobile operator says 53 base stations have been completely destroyed and have had to be terminated nationally; 39 in Tshwane and 15 in Johannesburg.

Yesterday, Vodacom said it is losing as much as R140 million a year from criminals targeting its base stations.