Armoured personnel carriers from the Brazilian navy rolled through smoke-filled streets in Rio de Janeiro on Thursday as police battled (favelas) slum-based drug gangs for a fifth consecutive day leaving at least 30 dead and almost 200 arrested.
Live TV coverage showed heavily armed police exchanging gunfire with suspected drug traffickers in the hilly shantytowns on the city outskirts.
Police targeted the Vila Cruzeiro favela in the northern part of the city, considered a stronghold of the gangs thought to be behind ordering attacks.
At least 10 armoured Marine vehicles, never before used in battles in the city's favelas, transported militarized police into Vila Cruzeiro, even as gangsters erected barriers. Television showed a bus smouldered, smoke rising from a gutted shell. At least 37 vehicles have been torched since the last confrontations begun, some of them in Rio’s main artery Avenida Brasil in downtown.
Our goal today is to take back ground from the drug traffickers. We're taking it back and rescuing society from its position as a hostage to the drug trade, said Colonel Alvaro Rodrigues of the military police and the head of the operation.
The violence began on Sunday as suspected gang members attacked police stations and burned vehicles. Authorities blamed the assaults on orders from imprisoned gang members angry at police efforts to take control of their turf in more than a dozen favelas.
The government-run Agencia Brasil reported that the continuing unrest stems from the transfer of prisoners from local institutions to federal lockups in other states. The agency quoted Rio de Janeiro Public Security Secretary Jose Mariano Beltrame. The agency also reported that at least 47 public schools and 10 nurseries suspended classes on Thursday.
Beltrame said two rival gangs joined forces to launch the attacks. The security chief also said he mobilized all police in the city to try to restore order and to step up police presence in 17 of Rio's major favelas.
At least 30 people have been killed in this week's violence, according to the military police. Among those was a 14-year-old girl hit on Wednesday by a bullet that strayed indoors. She died in the hospital.
We have no deadline to stop operations. We're going to continue giving logistical support ... to transport police troops for as long as needed, said Colonel Carlos Chagas, commander of the Marine logistics battalion.
Rio is among the Brazilian cities that will host the 2014 World Cup and last year was awarded the 2016 Olympics. The city has a history of violence and poverty that contradicts its image of shining beaches and colourful parties.
In the city of 6 million there are hundreds of favelas, where even police are hesitant to enter. Last year gang members shot down a police helicopter, sparking raids and violence that killed 30 people.
Agencia Brasil reported that the nation's Army was on high alert, but so far had not been called in to bolster police efforts.
The latest confrontation is also seen as the beginning of the federal government’s efforts “Operation cleanup” to clear the city from crime, drugs and organized crime ahead of an agenda of international events extending until the 2016 Olympics.
Earlier in the week Brazilian President Lula da Silva told TV Record that he had instructed his justice minister to attend to Rio de Janeiro with whatever he needs.