JOHANNESBURG — South African police said on Wednesday they would charge two men with the murders of 51 people, of which 17 were children, in what may prove to be the country's worst serial killings.
"There are 53 cases, of which 51 of the victims were killed," police director Henriette Bester told Reuters.
"Of the 51 murder victims, 32 were female, all of whom were raped. Seventeen of the victims were children between the ages of five and eight, of whom 11 were girls," Bester said.
She added that the two suspects were already in custody on unrelated charges.
"When one of the two men was convicted and sentenced to 30 years in jail on a rape charge, there were facts about the case that made the investigating officer suspect a link with the serial killings, so he began looking for connections," she said.
The names of the two men have not been released as they have not yet been formally charged.
The horrific spate of killings took place between 1995 and 1998 in the industrial Nasrec district in southern Johannesburg, the Soweto township and areas nearby.
The Star newspaper on Wednesday quoted serial killer expert Piet Byleveldt as saying the sentenced rapist matched the profile he was looking for.
"I looked into the guy's history and realised he had an accomplice," he said.
Police and criminologists say serial killers are often difficult to track down as they seldom know their victims.
The South African Police Service said in a statement that the two suspects had already pointed out several places where the killings took place.
Only two of the killers' alleged victims survived.
One of the survivors, Elsie Aspeling, and her husband were hijacked at gunpoint in 1997. Her husband was shot and killed while the wheelchair-bound woman was thrown into a field. She was saved two days later by a farmer on a tractor who heard her screams for help.
South Africa has one of the highest rates of violent crime in the world, fuelled by widespread poverty, glaring income disparities and a growing number of AIDS orphans.
The country had 55.3 murders per 100,000 people in 1999 compared to a United States rate of six per 100,000 in 1998.
South Africa's streets have been stalked by a number of serial killers, including Cedric Maake, who was sentenced to 1,340 years in prison in March this year for 27 murders he was convicted of committing in and around Johannesburg.
South Africa's worst serial killer was Moses Sithole, who was sentenced to more than 2,400 years in 1997 for 38 murders and 40 rapes.