GEORGETOWN (AFP) — Gunmen with assault rifles shot and killed 11 people in a Guyana village early Saturday, in an attack police blamed on a criminal gang whose leader has threatened widespread violence.
Protests erupted after the shootings, as thousands of people faced off with police and soldiers and set fire to tires on a major thoroughfare, raising concerns of further violence and ethnic tensions.
At least five of the victims were children, said Divisional Police Commander Leroy Brummel. Three survivors were hospitalized with gunshot wounds.
The killing in the village of Lusignan was a "cowardly act" by "sick, demented criminals," said President Bharrat Jagdeo, addressing his country and appealing for calm.
"We have to ensure this does not spread ethnic tension," said Jagdeo. "These are criminals. We have to hunt them down."
The targeted village's population is mainly of East Indian heritage. Guyana's two main ethnic groups are the descendants of East Indian indentured laborers and the descendants of black African slaves.
The protesters, most of whom were East Indian, also ripped out steel panels from bridges across a number of canals, and chased members of the predominantly black Guyana Defense Force (GDF) away from the fiery road blocks.
Protesters urged GDF members to go to neighboring Buxton, about six kilometers (four miles) east of Lusignan, where the gang is ensconced.
The attacks followed reports of telephone threats by Rondell Rawlins, said to head a gang of some 20 heavily armed black men he organized after breaking out of prison in 2002.
Rawlins reportedly threatened widespread violence after the disappearance of his pregnant common-law wife, which he blames on police.
Police say Rawlins is responsible for a series of murders, robberies and kidnappings in the past years, including the slaying of an agriculture minister in 2006 and the abduction of a US diplomat in 2003.
Lusignan, is a stronghold of the president's People's Progressive Party Civic (PPPC), located 16 kilometers (10 miles) east of the capital Georgetown.
The gunmen kicked down the doors of five wooden homes in Lusignan and shot their victims dead, police said.
Those killed included a couple and their granddaughter in one house, and a mother and her two children in another.
Shocked residents howled and wept in grief as they mourned their dead.
"They didn't come here to rob, they came here to slaughter," Lusignan resident Jag Singh told an AFP correspondent who visited the village.
Several villagers bitterly complained that the police arrived one hour after the shooting, despite repeated calls to a police station located just over six kilometers (four miles) away.
Police recovered spent shells from high caliber rifles and a set of binoculars from the crime scene.
Just hours before the slaughter in Lusignan, criminals assaulted the heavily fortified headquarters of the country's police force.
Two policemen suffered minor injuries during the attack, said Police Commissioner Henry Green, adding that spent shells recovered from the scene indicated that the gunmen had used M-16 military assault rifles.
Police believe the attack was a ruse to distract them from the raid on Lusignan.
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