Sun, Oct 24, 2004 - Page 17 News List

Getting away with murder

The number of guns in Taiwan is increasing and, as you might expect, the amount of gun-related crime is showing a similar rise

By Mark Kennedy  /  STAFF REPORTER

When police decided to raid the Kaohsiung-based hideout of Chang Hsi-ming (張錫銘) and his associates, they prepared for the worst. Authorities were tipped off one early morning in July that one of the nation's foremost kidnap-for-ransom gangs was holed up in Daliao Township in Kaohsiung. They descended quickly to make arrests.

Chang and his crew were wanted for the recent kidnapping of Yang Shang-shu (楊尚書), the 30-year-old son of a wealthy businessman and owner of Hohshin Bus Co three weeks earlier. Yang was later released after his father, Yang Chin-yuan (楊錦元), paid the NT$36 million (US$1.06 million) ransom.

Armed with assault rifles and pistols and clad in bulletproof vests, Chang and his gang weren't going to go quietly. And they didn't.

What followed was one of the most dramatic gun battles between police and criminals in Taiwan's history. With heavy fire from automatic weapons, the four-member crew were able to hold off as many as 1,000 police officers who had closed in on their position. The shooting was so intense that police had to fashion a rudimentary "armored vehicle" from a tractor and sandbags. Later reports indicated that the military had refused a police request for a proper armored vehicle, but military officials denied this.

The gang members eventually broke through the police ranks and fled the area. Exchanges of gunfire continued for several hours while the gang was on the run, later taking cover in a nearby shack. Chang and one of his accomplices -- Chen Jin-hsiung (陳進雄) -- managed to flee the gun battle after carjacking a vehicle and taking its driver hostage.

The remainder of his crew were eventually apprehended. Four police officers sustained gunshot wounds. One member of the gang was shot in the chest, but suffered only minor injuries because of his bulletproof vest. Miraculously no one was killed in the shootout. Chang and his partner Chen fled to the mountainous region of Tungshan, Taichung County, and remain at large to this day.

Third-time unlucky

The incident marked the third time police had to engage heavily-armed criminals in the past two months. A fierce shootout with kidnappers in Taichung City on June 16 left two police officers and one hostage-taker dead. Just under two weeks later, a drug gang in Chiayi County opened fire on police in a gun battle which left a gang member dead and a police officer injured.

Taiwan has some of the toughest gun laws in the world, but in response to the spat of high-profile gun battles over the summer, legislators plan to tighten these laws further. A draft amendment to the Statute Regulating Firearms, Ammunition, Knives and Other Deadly Weapons, would increase penalties for offenders. Those possessing illegal weapons, including homemade or remodeled firearms would increase. And those found guilty of trafficking guns would face a minimum of five years in prison with a fine of up to NT$10 million. Ratification of the draft amendment is pending. That existing gun laws have failed to deter the nation's organized crime rings underscores the fact that new legislation is not enough. It also calls into question whether Taiwan's police are adequately trained and equipped to deal with heavily-armed criminals. Aware that more needed to be done to reduce the number of firearms among the population, the National Police Agency (NPA) on July 1 launched a nation-wide three-month amnesty period encouraging people with illegal firearms to hand in their weapons without being charged. During this period, the NPA and other government agencies also planned to crack down on criminals known to be in possession of illegal weapons. The initiative came just two days after the shootout in Chiayi County, and ironically, Chang and his crew used their arsenal of guns to kidnap Yang just a day after the amnesty period began.

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