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Rio street urchins rest unnamed, unmourned

RIO DE JANEIRO - The killers warned the boys not to sleep in the street. But there was nowhere else to go. 'They said they'd come back and get us,' said a gangly street boy of 13.

Seven of his companions, aged between eight and 12, were murdered on Friday with gunshots to the head. A survivor said a state policeman was among the killers. Two state policemen have been arrested in connection with the killings and several others are being interrogated. The police have refused to comment on the case.

'They came out firing,' recalled the boy, hiding his face and declining to give his name for fear of reprisals. 'One was shooting at me but his gun misfired. I ducked, then ran and ran.'

The massacre made headlines across the world and shocked the country. Officials lamented the tragedy. Human rights advocates decried the systematic killing of abandoned children in Brazil's big cities. But none of this brought any relatives or loved ones to the Rio morgue to identify the boys.

Like so many of Brazil's estimated seven million street urchins, these youths were shoeless, homeless and, for all purposes, nameless. 'I don't know what's worse, the killing or seeing these kids here without anyone to say goodbye to them,' muttered Pedro Santos, a morgue employee for seven years who had unloaded the slight bodies from an ambulance hours earlier. 'These kids had taken a lot of bullets,' he said. 'Some of them got it from behind.'

The murder or 'disappearance' of street kids is nothing new in Rio, where poverty and neglect leave thousands homeless and roaming. Amnesty International issued a report last October denouncing the torture, murder or disappearance of thousands of poor children in Brazil's big cities by death squads composed of, or run by, police. The human rights orgnisation said the squads are 'hired by local shopkeepers to remove alleged criminals and petty thieves from the area'.

A 1992 Brazilian congressional investigation found that more than 4,600 street children had been killed in the previous three years. This year, about 320 have been killed in Rio, according to the juvenile court.

At first, city officials seemed indifferent to these new deaths. The Town Hall made plans to bury the victims at a public cemetery for indigents. But those plans were shelved after protests, said Abilio Souza, a member of the municipal Human Rights Committee. 'They wanted to shuffle the kids off, sweep them under dirt,' he said. 'Not only is that illegal, it's completely inhuman.'

Now the corpses lay in numbered containers under the watchful eye of the morgue attendant, waiting for someone to give them a past.

'You hope that one of these children's relatives will pick up a paper tomorrow, or talk to someone who knows what happened, and have the courage to come down and pick out their boy,' said Santos. 'It's just so damn awful for anyone, especially a kid, to die alone.'

The threats had started on Thursday, according to Dineva Vanuzzi of the National Movement of Street Boys and Girls in Brasilia, the capital. State police were making a routine sweep of the Pio XII plaza in central Rio to round up the children.

As usual, a gang of urchins was beside the Candelaria Cathedral, where they meet to beg, hang out and sniff glue from plastic bags. Users said the effects of the glue fumes helped them to forget their hunger and thirst.

What happened next remains unclear. Police may have tried to grab a boy, Ms Vanuzzi said. Other reports said they arrested an adult who supplied the children with glue. Someone threw a stone, and it shattered the windshield of the police van. The police left, but warned they would return.

At 1am, a group of children were sleeping on an old rug stretched along the stone pavement of Presidente Vargas Avenue, one of Rio's busiest thoroughfares. Five men then drove up in a white Chevette and a taxi, and the shooting began.

(Photograph omitted)