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By Rima Abdelkader and Ali Gostanian
A group of 19 Florida college students and a professor and staff member from their university were robbed at gunpoint of their laptops, cellphones, cameras, passports, money and bags while on an outreach trip in South Africa, authorities said.
The University of Florida group was on its way to visit a preschool class when the incident happened at a school near the city of Pretoria on Monday, university officials said.
An employee of the Viva Foundation School in Mamelodi East was assaulted by the group of at least five armed robbers, and a local resident was grazed by a bullet as the suspects “allegedly fired shots randomly when they were getting away” in a vehicle with no registration, the South African Police Service said in a statement.
University of Florida spokesperson Steve Orlando told NBC News said the university group helped to provide first aid to the two people who had come to their defense and were injured.
He said this is the first such incident in this international program for the university.
“We will be evaluating this program and location moving forward,” he said.
The group was robbed inside the gates of the school after being followed there by a car carrying the suspects, according to student Maya Barrett’s account of it on social media. The students then tried to flee to a classroom in the school, she wrote.
“We are all safe and grateful to have walked away from the crime alive,” Barrett wrote on Facebook. “We had people hugging us, feeding us, and apologizing even though they had no fault,” she said of the community’s response after the robbery.
Police said they are continuing their search for the suspects.
“The blatant disrespect for the law to a point of not caring about the safety of little children of this particular preschool, is a blatant attack on, and undermining the authority of the State,” police Lt. General Elias Mawela said in the release.