KINGSTON, Jamaica – More than 1,000 police and soldiers assaulted a public housing complex occupied by heavily armed gangsters defending an alleged drug lord wanted by the U.S., waging a major offensive in the heart of West Kingston's ramshackle slums.
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Security forces broke through barbed-wire barricades and fought their way into the warren-like Tivoli Gardens neighborhood Monday afternoon. Sporadic gunfire could be heard into the night echoing across the darkened slums, where authorities cut off power. Military helicopters flying with their lights off buzzed overhead.
Masked gunmen swarmed around West Kingston trying to prevent the extradition of Christopher "Dudus" Coke, who has been indicted in New York on drug and arms trafficking charges. The U.S. Justice Department considers him one of the world's most dangerous drug lords.
While fighting raged in Tivoli Gardens, gunbattles spread to other volatile slums close to Kingston, the capital that sits on Jamaica's southeastern coast, far from the tourist resorts on the north shore.
It was not immediately clear what was happening inside the virtual fortresses where Coke's supporters began massing last week after Prime Minister Bruce Golding dropped his nine-month stonewalling against extraditing Coke, who has ties to the governing party.
Authorities said two police officers had been killed and at least six wounded since Sunday, and at least one Jamaican soldier was shot dead during Monday's fighting at Tivoli Gardens, the Caribbean island's first housing project. There were no details on casualties inside that neighborhood or other poor areas where clashes erupted.
A woman in Tivoli Gardens told Radio Jamaica that she and her terrified family were hunkered down in their apartment as a firefight raged outside.
"I really pray that somebody will find the love in their heart and stop this right now. It is just too much, my brother," the woman told the station, the sound of a gunbattle nearby.
Gangsters loyal to Coke began barricading streets and preparing for battle immediately after Golding caved in 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.
West Kingston, which includes the Trenchtown slum where reggae superstar Bob Marley was raised, is the epicenter of the violence. But security forces also came under fire in areas outside that patchwork of gritty slums.
Gunmen shot at police while trying to erect barricades in a poor section of St. Catherine parish, which is just outside the two parishes where the government on Sunday implemented a monthlong state of emergency.
A police station in an outlying area of Kingston parish also was showered with bullets by a roving band of gunmen with high-powered rifles.
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.
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 Monday 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.