Brazilians stay off streets in Rio to reduce violence

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The Independent US

Police beefed up forces in 10 shantytowns yesterday and authorities tried to reassure a jittery population that New Year's celebrations would be peaceful, a day after gang attacks left 18 people dead across the city.

Police General Commander Hudson Aguiar said 20,734 officers would be deployed to patrol the city during New Year's Eve celebrations - a 20 percent increase over the year before. He said police had moved into 10 of the city's most notorious shantytowns, where they rarely go, to maintain calm.

Some 2 million people are expected to crowd Copacabana beach tomorrow night to watch the fireworks and musical acts that will ring in the New Year. About half a million of the revelers will be tourists.

State Penitentiary Secretary Asterio Pereira told CBN Radio that police intelligence suggested there would be no repetition of the attacks in which drug gangs set fire to buses and opened fire on police stations and posts around Rio de Janeiro.

Authorities believe the attacks were ordered by imprisoned drug lords. In Brazil, many organized crime gangs operate from prisons, where they communicate by mobile phone. By controlling the prisons, drug lords control street crime, meting out punishment to those who do not obey them after they are jailed.

Tourism officials expressed concern that Brazil's image - and revenue - could suffer from Thursday's wave of attacks,

Seven people burned to death aboard a bus and, two policemen, two civilian bystanders and seven alleged gang members were also killed.

Rio's Public Safety Secretariat said on Thursday another officer had died, but on Friday a spokeswoman who, under department policy, declined to be identified, said the third policemen's death was unrelated to the attacks.

Six other buses also were set alight, and while no one was injured in those attacks, many bus companies pulled their buses from the streets early Friday morning, stranding passengers trying to get home from late nights out.

State Public Safety Secretary Roberto Precioso said the attacks were apparently a show of force staged before a new governor is sworn in on Jan. 1.

The stark images of violence across Rio left tourism industry officials worried that tourism could be hurt as Latin America's largest nation heads into its high season during the South American summer.

The nation already has been struggling with two months of domestic air travel chaos, with severe delays angering passengers during heavy travel periods and officials acknowledged the violence creates a negative image.

"We have to work to minimize or eliminate it," Jose Francisco de Salles Lopes, director of research for the government-run Brazilian Tourism Board, told the Agencia Estado news agency.