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Toll from Jamaica violence climbs to 73

KINGSTON (Reuters) - At least 73 people died this week as Jamaican security forces stormed a Kingston slum and battled armed supporters of an alleged drug lord wanted for extradition to the United States, police said on Thursday.

Smoke billows over the Tivoli Gardens community in Kingston May 24, 2010.REUTERS/Andrew P. Smith

Residents complained of abuse and rights groups questioned whether police and soldiers had used excessive and indiscriminate force.

Most deaths occurred during an assault by police and army troops on Tivoli Gardens, a volatile Kingston slum and bastion of support for suspected drug kingpin Christopher ‘Dudus’ Coke, Deputy Police Commissioner Glenmore Hinds told reporters.

Coke was still at large. Tension gripped the upper middle class community of Kirkland Heights early on Thursday when word came that he was hiding there in a house owned by a friend.

Police stormed the area and a two-hour firefight broke out. Keith Clarke, the 58-year-old brother of former Minister of Industry and Commerce Claude Clarke, was killed by security personnel, apparently caught in the crossfire.

The violence in the capital started on Sunday as Coke’s supporters torched police stations to protest his potential extradition to the United States. He was indicted last year in New York on drug trafficking and gunrunning charges.

Prime Minister Bruce Golding declared a state of emergency, giving security forces broad powers to restrict freedom of movement, search premises and detain suspects without warrants.

Four of the dead were police and soldiers. The rest were civilians, mostly young men.

Violence in Tivoli Gardens eased on Thursday and security forces let journalists tour the bullet-scarred neighborhood, where residents complained of abuse by police and soldiers.

“They shoot up my house and they even killed two men in the house next to mine,” one woman said.

“They also killed a youth in my house after they sent me outside,” a man told Reuters.

Many people said they were hungry and had not been allowed to leave their homes to buy food. Others were angry at the prime minister, who is also their member of Parliament.

“He has abandoned us. We don’t want him around here again. He has let us down,” one woman shouted in reference to Golding, who has led the Caribbean island since 2007.

Amnesty International called for a thorough investigation into the deaths. Security forces had recovered only about a half-dozen weapons, “quite a low number compared with the number of people killed,” the rights group said.

“The human rights record of the police force in Jamaica is dire. Every year the police are responsible for a high number of killings,” said Kerrie Howard, deputy director of Amnesty International’s America’s program. “Only an impartial and thorough investigation of every death or injury caused by the use of force will enable the facts to be established regarding possible unlawful killings or extra-judiciary executions.”

Police in Jamaica killed 253 people in 2009, a figure consistent with previous years on the island of 2.8 million.

Editing by Jane Sutton and Alan Elsner