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Thursday, December 28, 2006

Wave of gang attacks in Rio kills 18 people

RIO DE JANEIRO, Dec 28 (Reuters) - At least 18 people were killed in gang attacks on buses and police posts in Rio de Janeiro on Thursday, a state official said, as the Brazilian city fills up with tourists for New Year celebrations.

Seven of the people were burned to death on a bus and nearly two dozen were wounded in the violence, which was similar to a wave of bloodshed that hit the business capital Sao Paulo earlier this year on orders from a powerful prison-based gang.

Rio state public security secretary Roberto Precioso blamed drug gangs and their jailed kingpins for 12 attacks across the oceanside city.

"It's an act against changes in the penitentiary administration," he told a news conference.

The attacks came as Rio prepared for its spectacular New Year's Eve beach party, which draws huge crowds of tourists. More than 2 million people are expected to flock to Ipanema and Copacabana beaches where performers including U.S. hip-hop band Black Eyed Peas will take part in a globally-broadcast show.

Preciosa said police had occupied 10 slums, which are controlled by drug gangs, and reinforced patrols.

"The result (of the attacks) was tragic. If it had not been for police action it could have been worse," Precioso said.

Police killed seven suspected attackers and arrested three. Two officers had been killed, he said.

Firefighters said they found seven charred bodies inside a bus that was torched on the busy Avenida Brasil thoroughfare by attackers. Three suspects were arrested, police said.

Unidentified assailants sprayed a police post with bullets in the beachside neighborhood of Botafogo, killing a street vendor. One officer was killed in an attack in wealthy Barra da Tijuca district and another near Rodrigo de Freitas lagoon.

Three buses and a police post were torched in the Bangu area on the outskirts.

Over 200 people were killed in Sao Paulo after a powerful prison gang, known as the First Command of the Capital (PCC), ordered attacks on public targets in May. Police retaliated in violence that continued into July. The gang was protesting against transfers of ringleaders to tighter security prisons.

Rio police are notorious for tough tactics and their retaliation could be harder. Police kill over a 1,000 suspects per year in Rio, more than in some war zones, and human rights groups accuse police of summary executions.

The PCC is not active in Rio, but some of the city's drug gangs have links to it, police say.

Rio has a murder rate of around 40 per 100,000 people, which is one of the world's highest, and crime is rampant. Last March, army troops were sent into the slums, or favelas, in a crackdown on drugs gangs.

Municipal tourism secretary Rubem Medina told Reuters the attacks would further hurt Rio's image. Apart from its famed Carnival in February, the city will host the Pan-American Games next July.

"It's such a shame that we are working so hard to show the positive sides of our city and this act damages it all," Medina said. "It is lamentable, sad," he said.

He expected 550,000 tourists for the New Year's bash.

Earlier this month, police arrested about 80 fellow officers for links with organized crime and involvement in drugs and arms sales in the state's most high-profile attempt yet to stamp out police corruption.
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