Police officials acted in accordance with the law when they shot and killed seven gunmen and arrested 10 others at a church on Friday in relation to the killing of police members in Ngcobo.
Members from the Tactical Response Team and others in the task team tasked with tracking down those responsible for the killings, were met with force by those hiding in the church, national police commissioner Khehla John Sitole said on Saturday.
Addressing a large crowd that had gathered outside the Mancoba Seven Angel's Ministries church in Nyanga village, Sitole said the police had decided to make an example of those who had attacked the Ngcobo police station.
"We made a decision that this is not going to happen in South Africa where the state will be undermined by criminals," said Sitole.
"We wanted our guns back and to arrest and to stop these criminals," he said. Sithole said the police had followed leads which had led them to the church but said when they tried to explain why they were there, they were fired upon.
"They [the suspects] attempted to fight their way to freedom through a gun battle.
"Little did they know we had trained members with us, before 30 minutes had passed seven of them went down," he said.
"We continued and arrested 10 more. We recovered our weapons too."
Sithole said a police officer from the SAPS Special Task Force was also wounded in the shootout.
"The dignity of your police station has been restored and those who did that attack, they will never do it again," said Sitole.
"While I have welcomed the outcome of this tireless investigation, I feel that this is still a little comfort for the families, relatives and colleagues that are mourning the passing of Warrant Officer Sibongiseni Sandlana, Warrant Officer Zuko Mbini, Constables Kuhle Mathetha, Nkosiphendulo Pongco and Zuko Ntsheku," Sitole said.
Sithole said that the church was now off limits, saying it was a crime scene, but would be closed once the police's investigations were concluded.
"We want to thank all the members who have not eaten or slept [to catch these criminals].
"No one will touch us, make us a mockery and continue as if its business as usual," said Sithole.
Police Minister Fikile Mbalula condemned the church for harbouring the criminals, saying it should have been shut down long ago.
"Let me tell you what we found there. There is no church there, there is satanism. They are not praying for anything, they are hypnotised," he said.
Earlier, Hawks spokesperson Brigadier Hangwani Mulaudzi had said at least 100 children and women were found residing at the church, but had not been caught up in the crossfire. He said the women and children have also been taken away by police.
"As far as we know, there's a lot of people who are staying there," said Mulaudzi.
Eastern Cape MEC of Transport, Safety and Security, Weziwe Tikana, said the children who had been found at the church would be sent to places of safety, while the adults would be sent to live with relatives.
She said after everyone had been re-homed, the buildings of the church would be demolished.
Mbalula said he had given the mandate that the police had 72 hours to deliver the criminals, but that the police had done it in 65.
"When I said 72 hours, I knew they would do it. I know what I am talking about, I am the minister of police," Mbalula said.
"All these handsome police officers who were involved in this takedown, must be honoured accordingly. It was an act of bravery," Mbalula said.
Mbaula said he had received a call from President Cyril Ramaphosa, who had asked him to convey his personal thanks to the police involved in bringing the suspects to book.
"The aim was not to kill, but when they charged at the police, it was their duty to respond adequately," he said.
Mbalula again reiterated his call that the police station must be upgraded.
"It must have cameras and safety features," he said.
Mbalula also said the police have money to pursue their targets. Finance minister Malusi Gigaba had allocated nearly R100bn to the police in the budget, and that some of those funds would be used to upgrade police stations, he said.