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Jamaica violence: Former prime minister fears indefinite martial law

Edward Seaga says Prime Minister Bruce Golding has lost control of Jamaica's security forces seeking to capture alleged gang leader Christopher 'Dudus' Coke.

May 29, 2010|By Chris Kraul, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Kingston, Jamaica — —

Former Prime Minister Edward Seaga fears Jamaica could fall under indefinite martial law in the aftermath of a week of violence during which, he says, soldiers and police indiscriminately killed dozens of innocent people.

In a telephone interview, Seaga, who was prime minister from 1980 to '89, said Prime Minister Bruce Golding has lost control of the nation's security forces seeking to capture alleged gang leader and drug trafficker Christopher "Dudus" Coke. The suspect, who has been indicted in New York federal court on drug and arms-trafficking charges, is still at large.

Much of the violence has occurred in and around Coke's power base in Kingston's Tivoli Gardens neighborhood. Since May 23, the Jamaican police force and army have conducted several sweeps in which at least 73 people have been killed and 700 arrested. Two police officers and one solider have also been killed in shootouts.

Repeating his call for Golding to resign, Seaga, who represented Tivoli Gardens in Parliament before Golding took over the district, said the prime minister is "vacillating, bumbling and heads a corrupt government."

"I don't want to be guilty of spreading the bad news, but it's time that what is happening is opened up before the world," said Seaga, 80, who has been active in Jamaican politics since independence in 1962. He and Golding are longtime political rivals within the Jamaica Labor Party.

Seaga said at least 100 people had died in the sweeps, and none of them were gangsters.

"The criminals are not the people who have been killed, just innocent people leaving their houses. The armed forces shot every man they could find. This has made me very distraught," said Seaga, adding that Tivoli Gardens is a "crime-free area."

The government said Saturday that all but six of hundreds being held at the National Arena have been released.

Asked to respond to Seaga's charges, officials at a government information center referred to a news conference conducted Friday by Jamaica Police Commissioner Owen Ellington. The commissioner had said that the operations were mounted in response to gangs' "coordinated criminal attacks against security forces" after the government served notice that it was going to arrest Coke.

Ellington said that during the week, 14 police stations and buildings had been shot up by gangs and destroyed by fire. Police said Saturday that 28 firearms and 8,885 rounds of ammunition had been seized in the sweeps, as well as nine hand grenades and dynamite.

At the news conference Friday, police commissioner Ellington described the searches as "very successful" even though Coke has not been captured.

"I would like to assure the country that this problem is localized and confined in a small geographical area of Kingston," Ellington told reporters.

Responding to criticism that troops and police officers have been too heavy-handed, Ellington said members of the security forces should treat citizens with respect.

"We have made it clear to them that our success in this mission can only be assured by professionalism in the performance of our members," he said.

Seaga said that Tivoli Gardens has twice before been subject to operations by the security forces, in 1997 and 2001, incidents he described as politically motivated and designed to damage his influence before to national elections.

Reacting to reports of a plan being considered by multinational banks and aid agencies to extend hundreds of millions of dollars in new aid to Jamaica to counteract the influence of drug gangs, Seaga was skeptical.

"I would urge the [donors] not to be duped by just throwing money at Jamaica," Seaga said. "They should first try to understand the poverty and the excessive corruption beforehand."

Kraul is a special correspondent

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