KINGSTON, Jamaica – Thousands of heavily armed police and soldiers barged past barricades into the capital's most violent slums on Tuesday, clashing with die-hard defenders of a gang leader sought by the United States. At least 30 people have died, officials said.
Jamaica's security forces, reeling from bold attacks by masked gangsters loyal to underworld boss Christopher "Dudus" Coke, were in the midst of a nearly daylong assault in the heart of West Kingston's ramshackle slums, long afflicted by gang strife.
On Tuesday, the third consecutive day of unrest, masked gunmen in West Kingston vanished down side streets barricaded with barbed wire and junked cars intended to block outsiders. The sound of gunfire echoed across the neighborhoods in Jamaica's south coast, far from the all-inclusive tourist meccas of the north shore.
Police spokesman Corporal Richard Minott told The Associated Press on Tuesday that the fighting in West Kingston alone has killed 26 civilians and one security official. Police had reported that earlier fighting killed two officers and a soldier.
It was not immediately clear what was happening inside the patchwork of slums where Coke's supporters began massing last week after Prime Minister Bruce Golding dropped his nine-month refusal to extradite Coke, who has ties to his political party.
Golding's office announced that Jamaica's ombudsman and the chief public defender were hoping to head to Tivoli Gardens to independently "ascertain the precise number of persons who have been killed or injured" there.
Kingston streets outside the battle zones were mostly empty, schools and numerous businesses were closed, hospitals offered only emergency services and the government appealed for donations of blood. The government on Sunday implemented a monthlong state of emergency.
The violence has not spilled into the capital's wealthier neighborhoods, but gangs from slums just outside the capital have joined the fight, erecting barricades on roadways and shooting at troops.
In the gang-heavy town of Portmore, police said gunmen sprayed bullets at a minivan ferrying local people. It was not clear if anyone died.
But West Kingston, which includes the Trenchtown slum where reggae superstar Bob Marley was raised, remains the epicenter of the violence.
Gangsters loyal to Coke began barricading the area's streets and preparing for battle immediately after Golding caved in last Monday to a growing public outcry over his opposition to extradition. Jamaica's leader, whose represents West Kingston in Parliament, had claimed the U.S. indictment relied on illegal wiretap evidence.
Security Minister Dwight Nelson said "police are on top of the situation," but gunfire was reported in several poor communities and brazen gunmen even shot up Kingston's central police station.
The drug trade is deeply entrenched in Jamaica, which is the largest producer of marijuana in the region and where gangs have become powerful organized crime networks involved in international gun smuggling. It fuels one of the world's highest murder rates; the island of 2.8 million people had about 1,660 homicides in 2009.
The violence has its roots in the 1970s, when political factions armed gangs to intimidate opponents ahead of the 1980 general elections. But the politicians long ago lost control of the gangs. Armed with AK-47s and other assault weapons, they have fought bloody turf wars for control of extortion rings that have provoked a cycle of seemingly endless revenge killings.
In a sun-splashed island known more for reggae music and all-inclusive resorts, the violence erupted Sunday afternoon after nearly a week of rising tensions over the possible extradition of Coke to the United States, where he faces a possible sentence of life in prison.
He leads one of the gangs that control politicized slums known as "garrisons." Political parties created the gangs in the 1970s to rustle up votes. The gangs have since turned to drug trafficking, but each remains closely tied to a political party. Coke's gang is tied to the governing Labor Party.
The U.S. State Department said it was "the responsibility of the Jamaican government to locate and arrest Mr. Coke." A U.S. Embassy spokeswoman denied widespread rumors that U.S. officials were meeting with Coke's lawyers.
Coke's lead attorney, Don Foote, told reporters his legal team had planned to have talks with U.S. officials at the embassy but the meeting was canceled.
Foote refused to say whether Coke was hunkered down in the barricaded Tivoli Gardens slum or was somewhere else in the country.