Jamaica hunt for drug lord: 31 dead

2010-05-25 22:48

Kingston - Gun battles raged here on Tuesday as troops and police hunted for an alleged drug lord wanted by the United States, in a bloody stand-off which has left at least 31 people dead in the Jamaican capital.

Witnesses said 28 of the dead are civilians and three members of the security forces. The 31 have been killed in violence triggered by government moves to extradite an alleged drug lord to the United States, police said on Tuesday.

Plumes of smoke hung over Kingston after security forces on Monday smashed through barricades erected since last week around the impoverished Tivoli Gardens housing estate to protect Coke's stronghold.

Soldiers dressed in full combat gear and armed with rifles prowled through the slum neighbourhood, going house to house in search of Coke, 42, due to be extradited to the United States to face drug-trafficking charges.

Kingston remained under a state of emergency as helicopters buzzed overhead and the capital's normally bustling streets remained eerily deserted.

Residents have been warned to stay home, and the few who ventured out stayed close to walls, diving for cover as gunfire rattled around the area, now turned into a war zone.

Schools and stores have shut, and taxis refused to take passengers into the city centre.

A police spokesperson, reading from a release, said three members of the security forces had also been killed and seven injured.

211 detained

"For civilians, 25 injured, 28 killed since the security started their operation... yesterday," a police spokesperson told AFP, before adding "several other persons were killed elsewhere" amid fears the unrest is spreading.

A total of 211 people have been detained in the sweep through the slum neighbourhood, including four women. But there was no confirmation that Coke was among those arrested, after the government last week signed the extradition order.

Residents see Coke as a local hero for helping residents pay bills, and even send children to school.

Coke himself says he is merely a businessperson.

His supporters have stockpiled arms, attacked police and set up barricades around the Tivoli Gardens neighbourhood, which is also the parliamentary district of Prime Minister Bruce Golding.

Airlines on Tuesday began cancelling flights to and from the troubled capital, as the clashes intermittently blockaded the international airport.

Golding was to address the House of Representatives on Tuesday, officials said, two days after the government declared a state of emergency amid the worst internal unrest for years.

Most of the million tourists who flock to the island every year do not visit Kingston - long dubbed one of the murder capitals of the world.

But the island's economy is heavily dependent on tourism for bringing in valuable foreign currencies.

A war

Late Monday, US officials updated a warning to US citizens not to travel to Jamaica, saying: "The possibility exists that unrest could spread beyond the general Kingston area."

The US embassy has also suspended non-essential services.

"You must realise, we are fighting a war," said deputy police commissioner Glenmore Hinds as Jamaican blood banks sought emergency donations.

The US Justice Department has labelled Coke one of the "world's most dangerous narcotics kingpins".

He is accused of leading an international gang since the 1990s - dubbed "The Shower Posse" for the number of bullets it allegedly has rained on foes - which US prosecutors say sells marijuana and crack cocaine in the New York area and elsewhere.

He was formally charged in the United States in August with conspiracy to traffic drugs and illegal weapons, and if convicted faces mandatory life imprisonment.

Coke's Tivoli Gardens area is Golding's district and the premier initially hesitated approving Coke's extradition before declaring an emergency and vowing to pursue the kingpin.