Jamaica's security forces clashed with masked gunmen allied with an alleged drug kingpin for a second consecutive day on Monday as an intensifying multi-front battle against gangs spread to volatile slums outside the capital.
Police and soldiers came under heavy fire in barricaded battle zones in the West Kingston stronghold of Christopher "Dudus" Coke, who is trying to avoid extradition to the U.S. on drug and arms trafficking charges. Military helicopters with mounted guns buzzed above the impoverished area, between plumes of black smoke.
West Kingston, which includes the Trenchtown slum where reggae superstar Bob Marley was raised, is the epicenter of the violence. But on Monday, security agents were also under attack in troubled areas outside that patchwork of gritty slums.
Gunmen shot at police while trying to erect barricades in a poor section of St. Catherine parish, which is just outside the two parishes where the government on Sunday implemented a monthlong state of emergency.
A police station in an outlying area of Kingston parish also was showered with bullets by a roving band of gunmen with high-powered rifles.
Security Minister Dwight Nelson said "police are on top of the situation," but gunfire was reported in several poor communities and brazen gunmen shot up Kingston's central police station.
The Jamaica Constabulary Force said two officers have been killed and six injured during firefights with criminal gangs whose arsenals rival police firepower.
"The loss of these two officers and the injury to the six, while difficult to deal with, will only serve as a rallying call for the police to remain strong, committed and firm as we continue to encounter brazen criminals," said Police Commissioner Owen Ellington.
Ellington said "scores of criminals" from gangs across the Caribbean island had joined the fighting in the Kingston area, where the fear of gun violence has driven many to live behind gated walls with key-pad entry systems and 24-hour security.
In a sun-splashed island known more for reggae music and all-inclusive resorts, the violence erupted Sunday afternoon after nearly a week of rising tensions over the possible extradition of Coke to the United States, where he faces a possible sentence of life in prison.
Coke is described as one of the world's most dangerous drug lords by the U.S. Justice Department.
Coke leads one of the gangs that control politicized slums known as "garrisons." Political parties created the gangs in the 1970s to rustle up votes. The gangs have since turned to drug trafficking, but each remains closely tied to a political party. Coke's gang is tied to the governing Labor Party.
Prime Minister Bruce Golding had stalled Coke's extradition request for nine months with claims the U.S. indictment relied on illegal wiretap evidence. After Golding reversed himself last Monday amid growing public discontent, Coke's supporters began barricading streets and preparing for battle.
On Friday, the U.S. State Department warned in a travel alert that access roads to the airport could be blocked by civil unrest, but Jamaica's Civil Aviation Authority said Monday that flights were arriving and departing on schedule at Kingston's Norman Manley International Airport.
The U.S. State Department said Monday it was "the responsibility of the Jamaican government to locate and arrest Mr. Coke." A U.S. Embassy spokeswoman denied widespread rumors that U.S. officials were meeting with Coke's lawyers.
Coke's lead attorney, Don Foote, refused to disclose to The Associated Press whether Coke was hunkered down in his stronghold in the barricaded Tivoli Gardens slum or was somewhere else in the Caribbean country.
In a national address Sunday night, Golding said the state of emergency order for Kingston and St. Andrew parish gives authorities the power to restrict movement. Security forces will also be able to conduct searches and detain people without warrants.