Gunfire resounds in Jamaica as death toll nears 50

KINGSTON Wed May 26, 2010 7:51pm EDT

1 of 9. A Jamaican police officer searches overhead buildings near the Tivoli Gardens area of Kingston, Jamaica May 26, 2010.

Credit: Reuters/Hans Deryk

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KINGSTON (Reuters) - Gunfire resounded in parts of Jamaica's capital Kingston on Wednesday as security forces fought armed supporters of a fugitive alleged drug lord in a fourth day of violence that has killed nearly 50 people.

Soldiers and police were still searching for Christopher "Dudus" Coke, 42, a notorious suspected Jamaican drug don whose extradition is being sought by the United States on charges of cocaine trafficking and gun-running.

Streets in the rundown capital of the Caribbean tourist island were virtually deserted, with limited traffic and most schools and many businesses remaining closed. Soldiers and police patrolled in armored vehicles and sports utility vehicles.

Most of the dead were young men, suspected gang member supporters of Coke, who were killed when heavily armed security forces on Monday stormed the Tivoli Gardens slum that U.S. prosecutors say served as a "garrison" for his supporters.

Police detained some 500 slum residents.

Bursts of gunfire could be heard on Wednesday from the Waltham Park neighborhood, north of Tivoli Gardens, and from Rockfort on the road to Kingston's international airport.

Jamaican Political Ombudsman Herro Blair said he had made a tally of 44 civilians killed in Tivoli Gardens after he was sent there by Prime Minister Bruce Golding on an inspection mission on Tuesday, along with Public Defender Earl Witter.

"We know now for sure that there are 35 civilian bodies in the morgue, and when we were leaving last night there were another nine to be picked up," said Blair, who is a clergyman.

Witter said he was concerned about the disparity between the high number of civilians killed in the Tivoli Gardens assault and the low number of firearms seized by soldiers and police -- only four, including an AK-47 automatic rifle.

"The security forces have their own explanation. If they don't find it particularly curious, I certainly do," he said.

Police said the increased number of dead civilians brought the overall death toll from four days of clashes in parts of Kingston to 49, up from 31 previously. At least three members of the security forces have been killed in the gunfights.

Many locals supported the crackdown. "This country has been taken over by criminals and we had 1,800 murders last year. Tivoli Gardens is one of the worst places in Jamaica and it is time that something is done about that community. It is like a kingdom within an island," said resident Jennifer Baker.

Golding, who declared a state of emergency on Sunday in two Kingston parishes after suspected supporters of Coke attacked police stations with firebombs and gunfire, has proposed tougher anti-crime laws, including anti-gang provisions.

WASHINGTON SUPPORTIVE

Golding rejected as "extremely offensive" some U.S. and UK media reports that linked him to the alleged drug lord Coke.

Coke is a supporter of the ruling Jamaica Labour Party and wields influence in the volatile inner city constituency that Golding represents. U.S. prosecutors have described Coke as the leader of the "Shower Posse," which murdered hundreds of people by showering them with bullets during 1980s cocaine wars.

The United States said it fully supported the Jamaican government's efforts to detain Coke to face extradition.

"We realize that it is a significant challenge for the Jamaican authorities but we're confident that they're addressing this in the way that they need to," Arturo Valenzuela, assistant secretary of state for western hemisphere affairs, said in a conference call with reporters.

Jamaican authorities could face condemnation from international human rights groups if excessive force was used in the bloody crackdown on Coke's slum stronghold.

London-based Amnesty International, in a global report prepared for release on Thursday, lists Jamaica among the worst offenders in the Americas when it comes to countries plagued by unlawful killings by security forces.

Jamaica has one of the world's highest per capita murder rates. Golding has said the limited state of emergency would remain in force for one month.

The unrest, which also disrupted flights in and out of Kingston airport, prompted the U.S. State Department to warn Americans against traveling to the city and surrounding areas.

Some business leaders have complained of a sharp hit to tourism. But officials said the violence had had no impact so far on the island's bauxite, sugar and banana production.

The United States requested Coke's extradition in August last year but Jamaica initially refused, alleging that evidence against him had been gathered through illegal wiretaps.

An arrest warrant to begin extradition proceedings against Coke was issued last week. He was indicted in Manhattan in 2009 on charges that carry a maximum penalty of life imprisonment.

He is accused of running a smuggling ring that exports drugs to New York and sends guns back to Jamaica.

(Additional reporting by Andrew Quinn and Deborah Charles in Washington; Editing by Pascal Fletcher and Xavier Briand)

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