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Jamaica cops vow to track down reputed drug lord who escaped raid; claims of innocents killed

KINGSTON, Jamaica (AP) — Jamaica's top cop insisted Friday security forces will capture a reputed underworld boss who escaped a bloody, four-day assault on his slum stronghold, while more people in the battle zone said innocents died during the fighting.

At a news conference in Jamaica's tense capital, police Commissioner Owen Ellington said authorities believe Christopher "Dudus" Coke, wanted by the U.S. on drugs and gun trafficking charges, is hiding somewhere on this tropical island of 2.6 million inhabitants.

"We will catch him, we will execute that warrant, and he will face justice," Ellington told reporters. He said the "best intelligence we have" indicates Coke remains in Jamaica.

Officials previously said Coke might have escaped Jamaica before thousands of soldiers and police invaded the Tivoli Gardens slum Monday in an effort to arrest him for extradition to New York.

Police say their offensive was launched after coordinated attacks by gangsters who shot up 14 police stations, burning two to the ground with molotov cocktails, in an effort to protect the 41-year-old Coke from extradition. So far, 70 civilians and three security officers are listed by the government as killed during the fighting.

U.S. authorities say Coke has been trafficking cocaine to the streets of New York City since the mid-1990s.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, a U.S. law enforcement official in New York said a lawyer for Coke has been in negotiations with the U.S. Justice Department about his client's possible safe removal to New York to face charges.

Coke is said to fear suffering the same fate as his father, a gang leader known as Jim Brown, who died in a prison fire in 1992 while awaiting extradition to the U.S. on drug charges.

It was unclear if arrangements to surrender had been made. Coke's lead attorney, Don Foote, did not return phone messages seeking comment on the report.

People in the gritty slums of the capital have made numerous allegations that police and soldiers sprayed bullets wildly when they stormed neighborhoods that had been barricaded by Coke's loyalists in West Kingston, where reggae music was born.

In an overgrown area of a cemetery across from the still-restive slum of Denham Town, the stench of decaying bodies hung in the air Friday. At least 11 roughhewn wooden coffins contained corpses, parts of their bodies exposed to buzzing black flies.

Ellington said 15 "badly decomposed" bodies of civilians shot during the security offensive were taken to the May Pen cemetery by overwhelmed undertakers at local funeral homes.

"The undertakers told us they could not take them into storage," Ellington said, stressing that photographs of the dead would be posted in the restive slums so relatives can identify missing relatives. He said police had "no interest whatsoever to bury bodies in secret."

Numerous local people said they were convinced many more slum dwellers were killed than authorities have reported.

One Tivoli Gardens woman told Associated Press reporters that she and her two children hid in their apartment as soldiers and police swarmed the complex Tuesday, shouting for everyone to come out into the open. When the family ignored the warning, she said, a soldier shot through the locked door, and the fragmented bullet hit her left leg.

"There are innocent people that were dying," said the 49-year-old woman, showing her wound as she recovered at a relative's house outside Kingston. "They fire the shot that hit me through the door! They didn't know if there was a child right there. I'm afraid of them right now, I'm afraid of them."

The police commissioner said Friday that two women had been killed in the Tivoli Gardens fighting, but the tally could not be independently confirmed. He said everyone else killed during the raid were men. He also said several gunmen "were dressed as females" seeking to avoid getting shot.

"We have heard allegations of misconduct. We are determined to investigate every one of them," Ellington told reporters at a Jamaican army base, where a military commander also vowed to take action if there were extrajudicial killings.

Information Minister Daryl Vaz has said the government would conduct an independent investigation into police actions during the raid. He said Golding's government was "very concerned" about allegations of deliberate killings at Coke's stronghold by security forces, which have long had a reputation for being indiscriminate with their weapons.

On Friday, police showed evidence of homemade bombs they said were found at Tivoli Gardens, some attached to barricades of concertina wire and trashed cars. Security officials said they had recovered about two dozen firearms and some 7,000 rounds of ammunition. They said Coke's defenders "may have received help from foreign sources," but didn't say who that might have been.

Earlier, a mysterious fire swept through the sprawling Coronation Market next to Tivoli Gardens, leaving stalls and inventory in ashes. Vendors had stayed away since Coke's supporters and security forces began clashing Sunday, and the government had been encouraging them to return.

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Associated Press Writer Colleen Long in New York contributed to this report.