May 25, 2010 / 4:58 PM / 9 years ago

Drug-linked violence shakes Jamaica capital, 31 dead

KINGSTON (Reuters) - Jamaican soldiers and police skirmished on Tuesday with armed supporters of a fugitive alleged drug lord facing U.S. extradition in the third day of violence that has killed 31 people, mostly young civilians.

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

The sound of intermittent gunfire echoed through parts of the Caribbean tourist island’s capital Kingston, as members of the security forces carried out door-to-door searches for Christopher “Dudus” Coke, 42. The United States is seeking his extradition on drugs and gun-running charges.

Police spokesman Karl Angell said 26 civilians were killed and 25 injured in the teeming Tivoli Gardens slum of West Kingston, Coke’s “garrison” stronghold, where U.S. prosecutors say he commands an army of young gunmen.

Many were killed when heavily armed soldiers and police stormed the slum on Monday hunting for Coke. The dead included three members of the security forces.

Angell said police had detained more than 200 people and seized firearms.

U.S. prosecutors have described Coke as the leader of the “Shower Posse,” which murdered hundreds of people by showering them with bullets during the cocaine wars of the 1980s.

Prime Minister Bruce Golding, who declared a state of emergency in two Kingston parishes on Sunday, defended the tough security operation launched in Tivoli Gardens.

“We are facing a crisis ... The measures are extraordinary, but they are extraordinary responses to extraordinary actions taken by some,” Golding told parliament. He said the limited state of emergency would remain in force for one month.

Two of the dead civilians were shot dead by suspected supporters of Coke in Spanish Town, 14 miles west of Kingston, late on Monday, authorities said.

The sharply increased death toll followed reports from residents of numerous civilian casualties during Monday’s assault on Tivoli Gardens. Residents complained on Tuesday of being “roughed up” and kept inside their homes by soldiers.

“We are hungry, we have no food and we cannot go outside,” one woman told Reuters by telephone. “Some of us are desperate. Whenever we try to go outside our homes, the soldiers chase us back in and tell us to stay inside,” she said.

“UNDER SIEGE BY CRIMINALS”

Some of the residents had reported military helicopters dropped explosives on the ramshackle slum district on Monday.

Information Minister Daryl Vaz denied this but said the government was determined to fight crime, which has in the past damaged Jamaica’s position as a popular vacation destination for U.S. and European visitors.

“This country is under siege by criminals and the time has come where it is going to be dealt with and this government is prepared to deal with it,” Vaz said.

The violence erupted when suspected gangland supporters of Coke shot up or set fire to five police stations and staged carjackings and looting sprees in downtown Kingston on Sunday.

The unrest, which also disrupted flights in and out of Kingston airport, prompted the U.S. State Department to warn Americans against travel 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 finally issued last week. He was indicted in Manhattan in 2009 on charges of conspiracy to traffic in drugs and guns, charges that carry a maximum penalty of life imprisonment.

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He is accused of running a vast smuggling ring that exports cocaine and marijuana to New York and sends guns back to Jamaica. The U.S. indictment alleges that Coke has controlled Tivoli Gardens since the early 1990s and describes the neighborhood as a “garrison” community guarded by armed men who erect barricades and act at his direction.

State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said the United States still hoped to have Coke turned over.

“We filed the extradition request with Jamaica last year and the government has recently decided to arrest him. Obviously they would have to go through a legal process to evaluate whether extradition is appropriate under Jamaican law,” he said.

Additional reporting by Andy Quinn and Jane Sutton; Writing by Pascal Fletcher and Tom Brown; Editing by Jackie Frank

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