Death toll rises as hunt for 'drug don' continues

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Gunfire shook parts of Jamaica's capital Kingston yesterday as security forces fought the armed supporters of a fugitive alleged drug lord in a fourth day of violence that has killed nearly 50 people.

Soldiers and police were still hunting Christopher "Dudus" Coke, 42, a suspected Jamaican drug "don" whose extradition is being sought by the United States on charges of cocaine trafficking and gun-running.

Streets in the capital of the Caribbean tourist island were virtually deserted, with very little traffic and most schools and many businesses staying shut. Soldiers and police patrolled in armoured vehicles and SUVs.

Most of the dead were young men, suspected to be gang-member supporters of Coke, who were killed when heavily armed security forces on Monday stormed the Tivoli Gardens slum that US prosecutors say served as a "garrison" of his supporters.

Bursts of gunfire could be heard coming on Wednesday from the Waltham Park neighborhood, north of Tivoli Gardens, and from Rockfort on the road to Kingston's international airport.

Herro Blair, the Jamaican Political Ombudsman, said he had made a tally of 44 civilians killed in Tivoli Gardens after he was sent there by Bruce Golding, the Prime Minister, on an inspection mission on Tuesday, along with Earl Witter, the public defender. "We know now for sure there are 35 civilian bodies in the morgue, and when we were leaving last night there were another nine to be picked up," said Blair, who is an evangelical bishop.

Mr Witter said he was concerned about the disparity between the high number of civilians killed in the Tivoli Gardens assault and the low number of firearms seized by soldiers and police – only four, including an AK-47 automatic rifle. "The security forces have their own explanation. If they don't find it particularly curious, I certainly do," he said.

Police said the increased number of dead civilians brought the death toll from four days of clashes in parts of Kingston to 49, from a previous 31. At least three members of the security forces have been killed in the gunfights.

Many locals supported the crackdown. "This country has been taken over by criminals and we had 1,800 murders last year. Tivoli Gardens is one of the worst places in Jamaica and it is time that something is done about that community. It is like a kingdom within an island," said one resident, Jennifer Baker.

Mr Golding, who declared a state of emergency on Sunday in two Kingston parishes after suspected supporters of Coke attacked police stations with firebombs and gunfire, has proposed tougher anti-crime laws, including anti-gang provisions.

The Prime Minister rejected as "offensive" some US and UK media reports that linked him to the alleged drug lord Coke, the Government Jamaican Information Service (JIS) said.

Mr Coke is a supporter of the ruling Jamaica Labour Party and wields influence in the volatile inner city constituency that Mr Golding represents. US prosecutors have described Mr Coke as the leader of the "Shower Posse," which murdered hundreds of people by showering them with bullets during "cocaine wars" for turf in the 1980s. Daryl Vaz, the information minister, said the search continued for Coke. Mr Golding has said the limited state of emergency would last for a month.

Police were investigating the recent killings of up to 19 other people in Spanish Town, 14 miles west of Kingston, to see if they were linked to the Coke extradition crisis.

The Government, declaring that the country is "under siege" from criminal gangs, has vowed a tough response against crime, which has in the past damaged Jamaica's reputation as a popular vacation destination for US and European tourists.

Jamaica has one of the world's highest per capita murder rates.

The unrest, which also disrupted flights in and out of Kingston airport, prompted the US State Department to warn Americans against travelling 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.