The death toll from fierce street battles in downtown West Kingston has risen to 49 and is expected to climb further as Jamaican security forces continue efforts to flush out the alleged drugs baron Christopher 'Dudus' Coke.
The latest figures were released after a team led by the public defender Earl Witter and including the Jamaican Red Cross visited the Tivoli Gardens district, scene of the worst fighting.
Witter told local media: 'The police, I gather, have put out a figure of some 26 dead so far. Our own headcount supersedes that. In fact we visited the morgue and were told that no fewer than 35 bodies were lodged there, and most of them were males, mainly young adults.' While at the morgue his team was told of another nine bodies being collected, he said.
At least 37 people are reported to have been injured and the government has appealed for blood donations. In addition 211 people including six women have been detained. The team was sent in by the Jamaican prime minister, Bruce Golding, following claims of abuse by police and soldiers who stormed the Tivoli Gardens ghetto on Monday in search of Coke, 42, wanted on drug and gun-running charges in the US.
He is still at large, with unconfirmed reports saying he slipped out of Tivoli Gardens on Monday while Jamaican soldiers were engaged in an intense firefight. Civilians have been the main victims during three days of street battles between security forces and gunmen loyal to Coke, the alleged leader of the notorious Shower Posse gang, who have erected barricades of barbed wire and junked cars.
Soldiers have told local media of five-hour gun battles in the streets.
A state of emergency has been declared in the West Kingston area, said to be Coke's stronghold and where he is regarded as a benefactor by many people.
The intensity of the fighting in the heart of the West Kingston slums, which is Golding's own constituency, has taken the government by surprise, the prime minister has admitted. More than 2,000 soliders flooded into the neighbourhood after Jamaica agreed to extradite Coke to the US.
Residents in the no-go area have complained of grenades being thrown by soldiers and of bodies being burned in the streets. Witter said they had seen no evidence of bodies being burned.
Golding told MPs: 'The government deeply regrets the loss of lives, especially those of members of the security services and innocent, law-abiding citizens caught in the crossfire.
'The security forces were directed to take all practical steps to avoid casualties as much as possible.'
The 'most thorough investigations' would be undertaken to examine all deaths caused by troops or police, he said. The country's security forces have a reputation for slipshod investigations and being too quick on the trigger.
Security agents would go after 'criminal gunmen in whatever community they may be ensconced', he said.
Government officials told reporters all the dead civilians in West Kingston were men, but people inside the slums who called local radio stations claimed there had been indiscriminate shooting during the all-out assault by police and soldiers.
Gunmen fighting for Coke describe him as a 'godfather' figure who helps provide services and protection to the poor West Kingston community. The services and protection are allegedly funded by a criminal empire that seemed untouchable until the US demanded his extradition.
Coke, also known as the President, has built a loyal following and turned the neighbourhood into his stronghold. One placard seen at a barricade read: 'Jesus died for us. We will die for Dudus.'
US authorities claim he has amassed a vast arsenal in his Kingston home turf and has been trafficking cocaine to the streets of New York since the mid-90s, allegedly hiring island women to hide the drugs on themselves on flights to the US.
The UK Foreign Office is advising British nationals to avoid the areas of West Kingston – Tivoli and Denham Town in particular – and Mountain View because of 'substantial unrest including gunfire'.
'There remains an increased risk of further outbreaks of civil disorder and street violence in Kingston and possibly in other urban centres in Jamaica,' says the Foreign Office advice.
The Shower Posse, referred to by the FBI as 'the most violent and notorious criminal organisation ever in America', is believed responsible for more than 1,000 deaths in the US and Jamaica during the cocaine wars of the 1980s.
Earning its name from its 'showering' of bullets at rivals during gun battles, it operates mainly in Jamaica, the US and Canada. A splinter group called the President Click is known to have operated in the UK – in parts of Brixton in south London known as Little Tivoli.
Former Shower Posse leaders include Coke's father, Lester Coke, who died in a mysterious fire in his prison cell in 1992 while awaiting extradition to the US on drug and murder charges.
(Via The Guardian World News.)