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Posted: 3/6/2006 5:04:13 PM EDT
Troops skirmish with Rio slum gang after gun raid
06 Mar 2006 15:31:41 GMT

Source: Reuters

By Andrei Khalip

RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil, March 6 (Reuters) - Brazilian soldiers clashed with drug traffickers in a Rio de Janeiro slum on Monday as they hunted for gangsters who had stolen a cache of weapons from a military base.

The operation was the first deployment of army troops in the crime-hit city in three years.

"We came under fire and soldiers had to shoot back," said military spokesman Col. Fernando Lemos. "Police did most of the shooting though."

Nobody was hurt in the firefight near the Providencia slum, or favela, and Lemos said the situation was under control as of Monday morning.

On Sunday night, gunmen from a drug gang threw a homemade bomb at soldiers guarding the entrance to the slum next to the port area of Rio, which was still swarming with tourists after last week's Carnival.

"I'm desperate. I feel in the middle of a war," said a woman who lives in Providencia and who could not return home on Sunday night because of the violence.

The army operation was prompted by the theft of 10 assault rifles by a group of masked, armed men in camouflage who robbed an army transport unit in north Rio on Friday night.

The army command sent 1,200 troops backed by personnel carriers and a helicopter to back up police looking for the weapons.

They have occupied several slums, including the sprawling Mare and Alemao complexes on the outskirts.

Col. Lemos acknowledged security lapses at the time of the robbery. "Our men were caught by surprise," he said.

Rio's powerful drug gangs raid military installations to fill their arsenals for turf wars with rival gangs or battles with security forces. Their stockpiles include machine-guns, bazookas, missile-launchers and land mines.

Convoys used by gangs to transport drugs and arms at times have as much firepower to a motorized infantry squad, sociologists say.

Troops were last sent into Rio during the 2003 Carnival to offer protection after a rise in violence. The government also used the army to safeguard events such as the 2002 elections in Rio, which has one of the world's highest murder rates.

Human rights groups have criticized such missions as a military response to social issues and the army has in the past expressed reluctance to take on what it sees as police work.

Analysts say troops must be properly trained for urban operations so as not to harm bystanders.

More than one million people live in Rio's slums. Many of these areas are controlled by drug gangs and police do not patrol them, resorting to military-style raids instead in which innocent people often die.
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