- The Washington Times - Monday, March 13, 2006

RIO DE JANEIRO — Drug gangs in a notorious shantytown clashed Friday with soldiers looking for weapons stolen from an army depot. It was the first time the gangs attacked during daylight.

The two sides exchanged fire — with gang members lobbing grenades — at least four times Friday in the downtown Providencia shantytown, the army said.

A mother and child wounded by bullet fragments were hospitalized for observation. A man injured by shrapnel from a grenade was treated and released, and another child was shot in the arm late Friday night in a separate clash.

The occupation by about 1,600 troops came in response to the theft from army barracks of 10 assault rifles by seven gunmen wearing army-issue camouflage gear and ninja masks. Police later said about 20 people were involved in the robbery, with 13 others outside the barracks providing cover.

None of the weapons were recovered, but many in Rio have long yearned for the military to take over the city’s shantytowns, which are controlled by armed drug gangs that frequently light up the night sky with tracer bullets.

“Without the presence of the armed forces to combat the armed gangs, no progress will be achieved,” said Ib Teixeira, a Brazilian economist.

However, prosecutors in Rio de Janeiro said the operation was unconstitutional and sought an injunction in federal court Friday to have it halted. The injunction request was denied by a judge.

Army officials insisted the operation did not represent an attempt to seize control of the shantytowns or to disarm the gangs and that soldiers would leave as soon as the weapons were recovered.

Later Friday, soldiers pulled out of two of the eight shantytowns they had been occupying.

The scale of the operation left many here puzzled by what they saw as a disproportionate response to the weapons theft.

President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva defended the army’s efforts.

“We don’t know who entered into the army barracks and stole the weapons. We can’t allow this to continue,” Mr. Lula da Silva told reporters in London.

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

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