Jamaica toll mounts on day 4

2010-05-27 23:00

Kingston - A Jamaican official warned on Thursday of a much higher death toll from a four-day assault on a lawless slum to capture an alleged drug kingpin, but the whereabouts of the powerful don was a mystery.

One day after counting 44 dead civilians from the operation in the capital Kingston, Hero Blair, a clergyman who serves as a government ombudsman, said he witnessed a truck transporting more decomposing bodies to a morgue.

"I know it's going to be much higher than 44," Blair told Jamaican television. "Where are these bodies taken from? I would like to know."

Despite the humanitarian concerns, life was gradually returning to normal in Kingston, a crowded capital nestled between mist-covered mountains that is far removed from Jamaica's sun-kissed beaches where tourists flock.

Downtown businesses - some just a short walk from the worst-hit Tivoli Gardens area - were given the green light to reopen and the US embassy resumed operations for the first time since the assault was launched on Sunday.

Schools, however, remained shut. And tensions persisted in the slum area, where smoke still billowed from some buildings torched in the unrest.

One resident interviewed by local television broke down in tears before hanging up, saying that security forces were going door to door and seizing mobile telephones.

500 arrested

Security forces have seized more than 500 people but not the man they were seeking - local don Christopher "Dudus" Coke, who has set up a virtual mini-economy in the slums.

The United States accuses Coke of running a major drug trafficking ring that supplies New York and other eastern US cities with a large supply of cocaine and marijuana.

Coke has always kept a low profile and has not been seen since the launch of the operation. Rumours swirled among Kingston residents about his whereabouts, with some insisting he must have had enough prior warning to sneak out.

Information Minister Daryl Vaz said Coke's whereabouts were unclear and declined to comment even on whether authorities were certain he was still in Jamaica.

Prime Minister Bruce Golding ordered an assault to capture Coke on Sunday after months of hesitation.

He represents Tivoli Gardens in parliament and Coke formerly supported his Jamaica Labour Party, part of the complicated relationship on the island between gangs and politicians.

Police spokesperson Karl Angell said security forces had seized control over all tall buildings in the area but were combing door to door to search for wanted criminals.

Bold steps

The line between civilians and combatants has become blurry in the Tivoli Gardens violence. Some describe the gunmen as a citizens' militia that enforces security in the neighbourhood and, above all else, protects Coke.

The Jamaican Red Cross, which accompanied officials on the earlier tour of Tivoli Gardens, said it would deliver food into the area to meet residents' needs.

But in a sign of humanitarian fears, the health ministry appealed for blood donations. The ministry said supplies were at "critically low levels," but explained this was partially due to disruptions at hospitals rather than an urgent need for blood.

The United States has staunchly supported the crackdown and refused to criticise Golding, whom the opposition charges could have moved in months ago to seize erstwhile supporter Coke and avert the crisis.

In Washington, State Department spokespereson Philip Crowley praised the "bold steps" by Jamaica.

"We certainly support the efforts of the government of Jamaica to strengthen the rule of law and arrest Christopher Coke," Crowley said.