18 dead as Rio gangs clash with police in violent show of force

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The Independent US

Violence across Brazil's second largest city killed 18 people yesterday, as drug gangs set fire to buses and fired on police stations.

The victims included seven people who were burned to death in one of four torched buses, as well as two policemen. Two other civilians were shot dead, including a street vendor caught in the crossfire during a gunfight in Rio's Botafogo district. Seven alleged gang members were also killed.

Roberto Precioso, the head of Rio de Janeiro's public safety department, said gang members used handguns, machine guns and grenades in 12 attacks against police stations and outposts that started early yesterday morning.

Fourteen civilians and eight police officers were injured, he added.

The attacks were a show of force by the city's gangs, staged before a new governor is sworn in on 1 January, Mr Precioso said. Police intelligence had warned that the gangs were planning attacks for some time.

"It is very difficult to prevent these types of attacks, that were practically kamikaze," Precioso said at a news conference. "Police action prevented the situation from getting much worse."

He said the attacks were apparently ordered from inside one of the state's prisons, but did not elaborate.

According to the website of the O Globo newspaper, the attacks began on the Washington Luiz highway that links Rio de Janeiro with the nearby mountain resort of Petropolis.

Most of the violence occurred on Rio's poor north side, although a policeman was killed in the upmarket Lagoa district, and a woman was killed in an attack on a police post in the Botafogo area of the city.

Rio's Mayor, Cesar Maia, said gangs appeared to be retaliating against militias - reportedly run by off-duty police officers - that in recent months have been battling the gangs in slum areas - and charging residents for protection.

"The reason for what's happening is that militias have grown and the drug gangs are leaving," Mayor Maia said. "To maintain their income, the gangs are increasing crime on the street."

Mr Precioso said early action by Rio's police had prevented the violence from reaching levels seen in Sao Paulo in May, when an organised crime group launched similar attacks that left nearly 200 people dead, including some 40 police and dozens of gang members. Walter Fanganiello Maierovitch, an expert on organised crime and Brazil's former top anti-drugs official, said police in Rio did a better job of containing the attacks.

"Precioso did not try to fool anyone and took to the offensive immediately," Maierovitch told CBN radio. "In Sao Paulo, the authorities downplayed the attacks at first, saying they were isolated incidents."

Still, he said, the violence showed that "Brazil's public safety policies are in shambles".

Mr Precioso said police were working to contain ongoing attacks, and that they did not present a danger to the millions of people who are expected to celebrate New Year on Rio's beaches. But he declined to answer a reporter's question about whether the police are prepared to handle security during the 2007 Pan American Games which will take place here.

Rio de Janeiro is one of the most violent cities in the world, with an annual murder rate of about 50 per 100,000 residents.