Rio de Janeiro: Police and soldiers kept one of Rio`s most dangerous slums under siege early Sunday, blocking entrances to hillside alleyways with armoured cars and warning gang members barricaded inside that they were ready to take the shantytown by force.
Nightfall on Saturday marked the end of a surrender deadline offered to gunmen hiding in the maze of tiny shacks, but authorities gave no indication of when they might move against the estimated 600 gang members thought to be trapped.
A police spokesman emphasised the superior night-fighting capabilities of the troops and police who had surrounded Alemao since Friday, although a police battalion commander indicated any major assault probably would come during daytime.
In a week of widespread violence blamed on the city`s drug gangs, authorities on Thursday seized one slum once thought virtually impenetrable. More than 200 armed gang members fled that offensive and ran to the nearby Alemao complex of a dozen slums that are home to at least 85,000 people, followed by security forces on Friday.
Hundreds of soldiers in camouflage, black-clad police from elite units and regular police manned positions around Alemao, sheltering behind armoured vehicles. They exchanged intermittent, heavy gunfire with gang members at many of the 44 entrances to the slum, its shacks packed along steep hills.
Many residents of Alemao streamed down the narrow alleyways on Saturday carrying their belongings — chairs, washing machines, bags of clothing — hoping to avoid being caught in the crossfire of the looming invasion.
Police spokesman Henrique Lima Castro Saraiva said during the afternoon that the deadline for the gang members to surrender was "when the sun sets”.
"We want them to turn themselves in peacefully," he said. "We do not want a bloodbath, but if they call us to war we will respond with force."
Saraiva said the gunmen would be no match for security forces in a pitched battle, saying they were "exhausted, hungry, thirsty, stressed out" and had not been able to bring in more ammunition.
He also said the soldiers and police were trained and equipped to fight at night. "We have superior manpower and firepower, and nighttimes favours us not them," he said.
A police battalion commander, however, said fighting would come during daylight.
"The probability of that being done is zero," commander Waldir Pires told reporters outside the slum when asked about a big night invasion.
He did not rule out smaller night-time incursions into the slum, and the Globo television network reported that at least one armoured vehicle was inside Alemao soon after night fell.
It was not clear how many gang members turned themselves over to police, though by mid-afternoon 16 men had accepted the police offer. One of them was allegedly the right-hand man to the leader of Alemao`s drug traffickers, said Allan Turnowski, the chief of the investigative branch of the police. Two other men were shot and arrested as they tried to escape.
Six wives or girlfriends of traffickers also had been arrested, Turnowski said.
Ten inmates suspected of orchestrating vehicle burnings and mass robberies early in the week in a campaign meant to scare residents and warn law enforcement away from their turf were transferred to federal, maximum security prisons away from Rio, according to a spokesman for the Rio state public safety department.
The face-off at Alemao comes after a week of widespread violence in Rio, with more than 100 cars and buses set on fire and at least 35 deaths, mostly suspected traffickers.
Authorities say the gangs are lashing back against a two-year-old police campaign that has pushed criminals out of slums where they have long ruled with impunity. It`s an effort to secure Rio before the city hosts the finals of the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics.
Rio de Janeiro`s Governor, Sergio Cabral, has vowed repeatedly to break the back of drug gangs that have ruled hundreds of shantytowns in the city of 6 million people.
Vila Cruzeiro, a slum neighboring Alemao, was occupied by police on Thursday.
A man who was born and raised in Vila Cruzeiro and still lives there with his mother welcomed officers when they took the hillside. He wants them to set up permanent posts to keep control of the community.
"Those of us who work, who are not involved with the (drug) traffic, we have nothing to fear," said the man, who didn`t want to be identified for fear of retaliation, because he wasn`t sure law enforcement would be able to hold on.
The human rights organisation, Amnesty International, complained that police had been too heavy-handed in their offensive, but many Rio residents seemed to welcome the aggressive stance. People applauded as armoured vehicles rolled by and voiced hope that a new push would reclaim areas of their city that had been lawless for years.
Cabral, the governor, said police taking Vila Cruzeiro was a sign of a new Rio.
"We have demonstrated to those who don`t respect the law ... the pre-eminence of a democratic state governed by the law," he said.