JOHANNESBURG - A shootout in which police killed 11 gunmen who were apparently planning to rob a cash transit truck has prompted widespread applause in South Africa and spurred calls to lift a 12-year-old prohibition on the death penalty.
Although details remain sketchy, police were reportedly tipped off to the planned robbery, which was to take place Tuesday on a road north of Pretoria. Moments after the gunmen opened fire, police hiding in nearby bushes began shooting. There were no police casualties, as there often have been in past shootouts with criminals.
In a country with some of the world's highest rates of violent crime, the reaction has been exultant. News reports quoted National Police Commissioner Jackie Selebi as saying, "We will not hesitate to fight fire with fire in order to protect our people and property." Selebi himself is under investigation for ties to South Africa's vast criminal underworld.
Another police official said, "It was splendid work." The Star newspaper used the quote as its banner headline, above a large picture of one of the dead robbers sprawled on the ground.
Callers to radio shows were even more emphatic.
"They must gun them down, more and more!" one said on Radio 702.
Several also called for the return of capital punishment, a move that Jacob Zuma, the front-runner to take control of the ruling African National Congress next week, has said he would consider.
"People are so tired in this country of especially violent crime that they would accept any action by the police," said Johan Burger, an analyst with the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria. "People are tired of being afraid, and they are tired of the complete arrogance of these criminals."
Longtime death penalty opponent Marjorie Jobson said the public's reaction reflected rising interest in tough tactics against criminals, including capital punishment, which the South African Constitutional Court outlawed in 1995.
"We haven't yet created a society that understands the value of human life," said Jobson, acting director of Khulumani Support Group, a human rights group. "This kind of knee-jerk reaction of revenge is very, very sinister."