SEVEN suspected ATM bombers were arrested in Kwazakhele during a routine stop-and-search operation that led to the recovery of commercial explosives and detonators hidden inside the vehicle.
The arrests come after the K9 unit pulled off a "suspicious VW Caddy" with the seven occupants – all of whom live in Nelson Mandela Bay – in Johnson Road, Kwazakhele, at about 10pm on Saturday.
The Hawks unit, which investigates ATM bombings, is now handling the matter.
Port Elizabeth Hawks commander Colonel Hyron Booysen said they believed the men were going to blow up an ATM in the Soweto-on-Sea area when they were stopped by the K9 unit.
"When the police pulled the vehicle off the road, suspicions were raised when the driver was spotted wearing a bulletproof vest," he said.
K9 unit members searched the vehicle and confiscated 10 explosive power gel cartridges, detonators, a car battery and charger – all used to make bombs.
Booysen said all the men were known to organised crime detectives and five of them had ties to various northern areas gangs. Five of the men live in the Despatch area, one in Govan Mbeki township and another in Soweto-on-Sea, Port Elizabeth.
"We are busy looking into how these men attained the explosives but at this stage we cannot reveal too many details as it is still under investigation."
Police explosives experts say the men had enough explosives to blow up about 10 ATMs.
Another Hawks detective said they were trying to link the suspects to other ATM bombings in the Bay and the province.
"It is well known that ATM syndicates move around the country and are sometimes linked to a more sophisticated network of suppliers and dealers," he said.
Detectives said they had not yet ruled out the possibility that the men, who cannot be named until they appear in court, were linked to a larger syndicate operating countrywide.
Over the past two months, bombers have blown up two ATMs in the Motherwell area.
In both instances the men fled empty- handed as the explosives failed to open the safe within the machine.
Police statistics for the 2010-11 financial year show that 399 ATM bombings were reported countrywide. Hardest hit were Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal.
Last year, Police Minister Nathi Mthethwa ordered that teams within the Hawks be established to investigate such bombings in an attempt to curb explosives-related cases.
The seven suspects are due to appear in the Port Elizabeth Magistrate's Court today for the illegal possession of explosives and detonators.
More charges may be added as the investigation continues.