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Jamaica: 73 killed in hunt for alleged drug lord

Jamaican police say at least 73 people have died as security force hunt for a reputed drug lord wanted by the United States.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Jamaican security forces kicked down doors and arrested dozens of people in a bullet-pocked slum Thursday, and said the death toll from four days of fighting sparked by the search for a reputed drug lord has risen to 73.

The target of the manhunt, Christopher "Dudus" Coke, was nowhere to be found. He is sought by the United States on drug and arms trafficking charges, and the U.S. Justice Department calls him one of the world's most dangerous drug kingpins.

"We are still searching for Mr. Coke," Deputy Police Chief Glenmore Hinds said. "Certainly we can't disclose where we are looking."

He said Coke's offices were found in the heart of the Tivoli Gardens slum, but would not say what authorities found there.

'Civilians,' officers killed
Hinds said police and soldiers had found 73 "civilian" bodies, three of which might not have been killed in incidents related to the raid. He said three security officers were also killed in battles with gunmen loyal to Coke, who had nine months to prepare for an escape while Jamaica's prime minister wavered over U.S. demands for his extradition.

Authorities sought to reassure the public about the ability and willingness of authorities to control Kingston's downtown slums.

They also stressed that mostly men had died in the shootouts, but refused to provide specific breakdowns and the tally could not be independently confirmed.

The worst bloodshed was in Tivoli Gardens, Coke's ramshackle base in West Kingston, where roughly 35 international journalists — including three from The Associated Press — were escorted Thursday by soldiers during an hour-long tour.

In the battle-scarred neighborhood, visibly anxious residents, mostly women and children, said they were relieved the fighting was apparently over but accused authorities of playing down casualty figures. Many looked warily at soldiers when they talked with journalists and accused security forces of shooting innocents.

"They kill my baby pickney!" a woman shouted to reporters, using the patois word for child while standing in a cluster of people near a large mural showing Prime Minister Bruce Golding, who Coke helped to win elected office and represents West Kingston in Parliament.

Another woman, who said she did not feel safe providing her name, lashed out at the government for approving the raid on Tivoli Gardens, where graffiti can be seen reading "Vote for Bruce" and "JLP" — the prime minister's Jamaica Labour Party.

"Not everybody is guilty living in here! A lot of innocent people died," the woman told AP reporters, adding that she huddled at home with her two children while shooting raged outside.

When asked about the numerous allegations of human rights abuses during the fighting, Hinds would only say that "any individual violator is responsible for his actions."

Officials try to ID bodies
Information Minister Daryl Vaz said that officials were trying to identify decomposed bodies and that the government would conduct an independent investigation into police actions during the raid. He said Golding's government was "very concerned" about allegations of deliberate killings by security forces, which have long had a reputation for slipshod investigations and for being too quick on the trigger.

Police rarely, if ever, patrol inside Coke's slum. The last time they attempted to assert control inside Tivoli Gardens, in 2001, clashes between gunmen and security forces killed 25 civilians, a soldier and a constable.

On Thursday, sporadic gunfire could still be heard in the neighboring slum of Denham Town, where some streets remained barricaded by local gang members.

The director of Jamaica's Red Cross, Jaslin Salmon, said he was trying to get access to Denham Town — and said the death toll was almost certain to go up once he did.

"We know there are people with urgent needs there," Salmon said. "We've also been told there are bodies in there."

A crowd of some 100 people in Denham Town pointed at nearby May Pen cemetery, shouting to reporters: "There are a lot of bodies over there." Soldiers patrolling the cemetery barred anyone from entering.

More than 500 people had been arrested in connection with the four days of fighting, most of them in Tivoli Gardens. Police were searching for weapons, but had found only six, along with 7,000 rounds of ammunition and some improvised explosives, Hinds said.

The 41-year-old Coke, also known as "general" and "president," allegedly relied on a band of gunmen to keep control of Tivoli Gardens. He solidified his authority by dispensing charity and street justice in an area with little government presence.

American authorities say Coke has been trafficking cocaine to the streets of New York City since the mid-1990s, allegedly hiring island women to hide the drugs on themselves on flights to the U.S.

The four-day gunbattle occurred around the capital on Jamaica's south coast, far from the tourist resorts on the north shore of the Caribbean island.