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Last Updated:  Monday, 24 February, 2003, 23:41 GMT
Drug gangs bring chaos to Rio
Rio residents look at burned-out buses
Gang members torched buses

Drug gangs armed with machine guns and home-made bombs have brought chaos to Rio de Janeiro just days before the city's famous carnival begins.

Gang members in the Brazilian coastal city attacked police posts, burned vehicles, forced shops to close and set off two small bombs on Monday.

Police say the violence was ordered by the jailed leader of the country's most notorious drugs gang in retaliation for a tough official crackdown against the criminal groups.

Although no one has died, the turmoil comes at the worst possible time for the city, which is expecting almost 400,000 tourists for this year's carnival, beginning on Friday.

The bombs were set off in the early hours of the morning in a wealthy beachfront area packed with tourists - although no-one was injured.

Elsewhere in the city, a police post was sprayed with bullets from a machine gun while many shops stayed closed after receiving threats from the gangs.

A number of buses were also torched by gang members, and at the scene of one bus burning, police and bandits took part in a shoot-out.

Show of force

Rio's state security chief Josias Quintal said the order to shut down shops was aimed at creating "a wave of terror and climate of instability", but dismissed it as a "desperate attempt" by drug traffickers to retaliate for tough police action against them.

Police are blaming Rio's largest drug gang, the Red Command, for the violence.

A military police officer patrols Rio's Benfica slum
The violence follows a police crackdown on gangs

They say the order for the violence was given by the Red Command's jailed leader, Luiz Fernando da Costa - better known as Fernandinho Beira-Mar, or "Seaside Freddy".

Such attacks have happened before and are usually designed as a show of force if police action threatens to undermine the balance of power in Rio, according to the BBC's correspondent in Brazil, Tom Gibb.

But the violence hit upscale areas of the city usually immune from gang-related incidents, and while tourists are still expected to flock in for the carnival, the traditional festival celebrated with fancy-dress parades, music and dancing it is a blow to Rio's reputation.

"It is lamentable that this happens when we have a record number of tourists," said the city's Mayor Cesar Maia.



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The BBC's Tom Gibb
"The attacks came at a time designed to get maximum attention"



SEE ALSO:
Country profile: Brazil
04 Jan 03 |  Country profiles
Rio carnival reaches fever pitch
11 Feb 02 |  Entertainment


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