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Jan 21, 2005

A day of rage in Belmopan

Story PictureWhether you were in Belmopan to protest the government’s budget, support it, or just look on, there was no escaping the conclusion that much of what happened today in the nation’s capital was not pretty. News 5′s Janelle Chanona was on the scene until late this afternoon with cameraman George Tillett. Here’s what they saw and heard.

Janelle Chanona, Reporting
In the hours leading up to the budget debate, no less than four organized camps had established themselves in the capital city. The Belize Police Department was determined to hold the line, maintaining a tight grip on and around Independence Hill.

In the Belmopan Civic Centre, Belize?s labour movement persisted in their position against proposed tax hikes and pay increase deferrals.

Anthony Fuentes, President, BNTU
?The teachers and public officers of this country deserve and demand our eight and five percent (8 and 5%) increase…nothing less than that.?

Across the parking lot, the People United Party forces were rallying behind party leader and Prime Minister Said Musa and his government.

Prime Minister Said Musa
?We are here today to continue the work of the peaceful constructive Belizean revolution. We of the Peoples United Party, we build we do not destroy.?

As the drums of the United Democratic Party supporters merged with that of the PUP?s and the unions? song of solidarity, Prime Minister Musa enters the House of Representatives. Nat soundY

But then the peaceful demonstrators become angry protestors, openly engaging in confrontation with the police cadets on the frontline.

The riot squad is called in.

Assistant Police Commissioner, Crispin Jeffries attempts to cool the crowd are quickly met with open hostility

Behind police barriers, protestors collect missiles to hurl at the authorities, including rocks, lumps of soil, glass bottles and even fruit.

As the violence escalates, union leaders disassociate themselves from the fighting.

Horrace Patten, President, NTUCB
?We like the turnout but the problem is we don?t want to get involved with any political thing. Because our thing is strictly non-political. So what we are saying is non-political so we don?t want the different people be mixing around with us that causing mischief that would create problem. So we are trying to keep people away from that type of thing. That?s why some of us are riled up because we don?t want to get mixed in the crowd and creating any type of problem.?

Then, with little warning, Independence Hill becomes a battlefield.

In the melee, police make their first arrest of the day.

As police prepare for more attacks, press officer G. Michael Reid defend actions of the department.

G. Michael Reid, Police Press Officer
?What happened is one individual broke through the line and got behind the police and was in fact throwing some big rocks and in fact actually advancing at Mr. Jefferies and was throwing a couple of rocks at Mr. Jefferies. He came all the way up the hill and he was subsequently arrested. I think the police have shown remarkable restraint and so far in all of this ruckus, only one individual has been arrested, says a lot about the police restraint.?

Janelle Chanona
?Is it true that live rounds were fired into the air as warning shots??

G. Michael Reid
?That is not correct. If the live rounds were fired, it was not from the Police Department.?

Janelle Chanona
?We saw shotguns being used and fired. What was in the gun??

G. Michael Reid
?Shotguns and a couple of canastas of teargas were fired into the crowd.?

Janelle Chanona
?No, but I saw an officer with a shotgun, pulled the trigger. What was in the gun? Blanks? Rubber bullets??

G. Michael Reid
?Janelle, you obviously saw something I didn?t. As far as I know there were no live shots fired. Certainly nothing was fired into the crowd as you know.?

Janelle Chanona
?What was it that Mr. Jefferies used to disperse the crowd??

G. Michael Reid
?There was teargas used. At what point should the police have continued to take abuse and not do something??

But as these shells prove, the police department was firing shotgun shells filled with plastic pellets into the crowd. With more than a few casualties, the authorities continue to maintain the line. On the other side of the barrier, UDP national campaign manager Carlos Perdomo explains his party?s position.

Carlos Perdomo, Campaign Manager, UDP
?The UDP position is for a very peaceful demonstration, but we have people that are around here who are very angry and I don?t think that they are UDP followers. But we are calling. You can see we are using our microphones to say no violence, no stoning. But Musa has caused everybody to get as angry as this and he is pretending like he?s not listening. But we are calling for peace.?

Janelle Chanona
?But Mr. Brian ?Yellowman? Audinett he is not associated with your party??

Carlos Perdomo
?Yes, but they pushed him. That young man that they arrested over there it?s the police pushed him first.?

But the unions continued to picket, their song quickly changing to focus on the police.

Union Members
?Jeffries has to go. Jefferies has to go.?

Dylan Reneau, PSU
?What happened just now was a deliberate act by the political parties to get this thing into a violent confrontation because I can clearly report besides the UDP, they were PUP elements in that crowd that were hurling and creating this violence and we almost got a lot of unions members injured. This is a peaceful protest on the part of the unions. We are making our point and we are trying to hold our ground. But just now when Mr. Jefferies came out and there were live rounds fired, spraying teargas on everybody he could meet, that is not the way that the Belizean society is going to democracy. If you talk to democracy that is not democracy and peace and quiet.?

Additional members of the riot squad are dispatched to the front line, and formed a protected barrier around themselves. But suddenly the become targets.

And still more officers are sent to the steps.

Union leaders then try to mediate with the authorities but UDP activist Brian ?Yellowman? Audinett uses the opportunity to break the line.

The police prepare for anything, arming themselves with heavy artillery.

Then comes word of Audinett?s arrest and focus shifts to the Belmopan Police Station.

With leader of the opposition Dean Barrow as counsel, Police Commissioner Carmen Zetina agrees to process the arrested men expeditiously to appease the crowd. But the move does not erase the violence of the day.

Dean Barrow
?They speak for themselves. There is not a great deal more than I can say. Nobody would have wished this to happen. I believe that the Prime Minister reacted terrible by airing those ads that he did and by appearing to be summoning up PUP soldiers to try and provoke a confrontation. I?m happy that it?s not been any worst than it had been. I believe that as the afternoon wears on we will be able to sort things out without any more violence and for that we will be grateful. But from this day forward, clearly there will have to be a change with respect to the way we are governed. People have made it absolutely clear that ?they nuh di play?. So I think that it?s a historic and to some extent, a glorious day for Belize.?

But as Assistant Commissioner Jeffries takes the front line again, he comes under fire by people who are apparent UDP supporters.

Taking no chances, Jeffries arms himself with a shotgun believed to be filled with plastic pellets, aiming at the primary agitators in the crowd.

Pellets, which find their mark.

Up until late this evening, skirmishes between protestors and police continued in Belmopan. Reporting for News 5, I am Janelle Chanona.

At dusk, having read the riot act, police dispersed the crowd which had refused to leave the area.

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