christopher coke Fierce gunbattles turned the Jamaican capital into a war zone yesterday as soldiers stormed the stronghold of an alleged drug baron wanted in the United States, but failed to find him.

At least sixty people, including three members of the security services, are believed to have been killed in battles between security forces and supporters of Christopher “Dudus” Coke, the reputed head of an international drug gang known as the Shower Posse. The Government wants to extradite him to the US, where he faces drug-trafficking and gun-running charges. Bodies lay untouched in the streets as fighting raged in Mr Coke’s bastion in the Tivoli Gardens slum, Jamaica’s first public housing estate, and the nearby business district known as the Corporate Area. “You must realise, we are fighting a war,” Glenmore Hinds, the deputy police commissioner, said. Gunfights broke out repeatedly between security forces and heavily armed men trying to protect Mr Coke from arrest. A clash outside the Kingston Public Hospital forced staff to close the medical centre, which had been treating the injured. Gang members opened fire after they were barred from entering the hospital to accompany about twenty bodies of people killed in Monday’s assault on Mr Coke’s stronghold.

Heavy shooting was also reported in Coronation Market with gang members firing from trees. Fears of a marauding gunman caused children to flee a school where they were doing their exams. The police put the death toll from Monday’s assault at 26 civilians and one soldier, in addition to the two police officers and one civilian who died when fighting erupted on Sunday. But last night hospital sources said that more than 60 had died. At least 25 civilians, seven police officers and four soldiers have been wounded. The security forces seized army fatigues, ballistic vests, binoculars and high-powered weapons from the drug gang, which is accused of importing weapons from the US to a Kingston wharf that it controls. Residents of the besieged slum, near the Trenchtown neighbourhood that was the home of the reggae star Bob Marley, remained stranded in their homes, refusing a government offer to move them out by bus. Some called radio stations to complain that the army was killing young men, although the Government has denied ordering a shoot-to-kill policy.

After two days of clashes, violence was spreading beyond the roughly square-mile battle zone cordoned off by the police. “It is really bad out there,” said Oliver Francis, a handyman who had been dodging the bullets. “There are a lot of gunshots and a lot of people on the roads and police and soldiers. It’s dangerous. You never know, a stray shot could catch you.” So far Kingston’s wealthier neighbourhoods have escaped the mayhem, but gangs from slums just outside the capital have joined the fight, erecting barricades and shooting at troops. Most businesses remained closed in central Kingston and many children stayed away from school. Parliament went ahead with its session after MPs received extra security to travel to the assembly. Bruce Golding, the Prime Minister, promised MPs that he would restore law and order but expressed regret for the loss of lives. He said he absolutely rejected claims that Jamaica had become a “narco-state”.

The stand-off between the Government and the drug gangs began on May 17, when Mr Golding suddenly announced that he would extradite Mr Coke to the United States. The Shower Posse, accused of murdering 1,400 people in the 1980s drug wars in the United States, has long been connected to Mr Golding’s Labour Party. Mr Coke’s father was a previous reputed head of the Shower Posse and died in a 1992 prison fire the day before he was to be extradited to the US, amid speculation that political figures wanted to prevent him from talking to the US authorities. Mr Golding had resisted Mr Coke’s extradition for nine months. The Prime Minister had previously claimed that the US extradition request was based on wiretap evidence illegally obtained from Jamaican police. Last week he did an abrupt about-turn and said that Mr Coke could be transferred to the US.

By last night 211 people had been detained in the security forces’ sweep through the slum area. Britain, Canada and the United States have all issued travel warnings to tourists.