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Brazil Mulls Sending Troops to Rio de Janeiro to Combat Surging Gang Violence

Dec. 30, 2006: Police officers patrol the streets of Rio de Janeiro as the death toll from gang-related street violence rises to 19.AP

Rio de Janeiro's new government and Brazil's top security official will meet Wednesday to discuss sending federal troops to the city to combat a wave of gang violence that President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva has called "terrorism," officials said.

National Security Secretary Luiz Fernando Correa and Rio de Janeiro State Security Secretary Jose Mariano Beltrame will weigh options on how to crack down on gangs in the Wednesday morning meetings, the press office of Rio's public safety department said on Tuesday.

Correa will consider "a series of projects, including the possibility of sending National Security Forces to operate in the state," Beltrame said.

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Last week, drug gangs opened fire on police stations and set fire to buses in attacks that left 19 people dead and have hurt tourism in Rio, Brazil's second-largest city. Eight victims were bus passengers whose bodies were charred beyond recognition.

Late Tuesday, assailants ordered passengers off a bus then set it on fire in Sao Joao de Meriti, a crime-infested suburb on the outskirts of Rio, the Folha online news service said. No one was injured. Police were not immediately available to confirm the attack.

The attacks have been attributed to Rio's drug gangs angered by increased pressure from anti-criminal militias, reportedly run by former and active duty police officers and soldiers.

Authorities are concerned whether police can guarantee security as Rio prepares to host a Mercosur trade bloc summit, the 2007 Pan American Games and its annual five-day Carnival bash.

"We are going to work to change the police and create a police for society," Beltrame told government news agency Agencia Brasil. He did not give details.

The violence was a focus of Silva's speech Monday when he was sworn in for a second four-year term.

"This barbarity that happened in Rio de Janeiro can't be treated like common crime," Silva said. "It's terrorism and must be dealt with by the strong hand of the Brazilian state."

Newly inaugurated Rio de Janeiro Gov. Sergio Cabral said he would accept an offer of federal troops to fight crime — a reversal from the policy of the previous administration.

Sao Paulo state rejected a similar offer when it suffered a similar wave of gang attacks in May that left nearly 200 people dead, including some 40 police officers.

"I think it's important they (the troops) go immediately," Cabral told reporters at Silva's swearing-in ceremony in the capital of Brasilia.

On Monday, gang members set fire to a bus in Niteroi, across Guanabara Bay from Rio, although no one was reported injured. In Rio, an unidentified man shot and killed two young men who threatened to torch a city bus.

Rio is one of the most violent cities in the world, with an annual homicide rate of 50 per 100,000 people.

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