Saturday | November 3, 2001

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Intense gunfire scared reporters

By Omar Anderson, Staff Reporter

JOURNALIST MORTIMER "Tino" Geddes yesterday testified at the West Kingston Commission of Enquiry that Opposition Leader Edward Seaga ended his July 7 press briefing abruptly at the Tivoli Gardens Community Centre, after reporters became scared of the intense gunfire.

The media veteran of 35 years experience who works with the Radio Jamaica Communication Group, said in one case, CVM-TV news editor Milton Walker, hid beneath a table after a rapid burst of gunfire.

Under examination from Commission's Counsel Velma Hylton, Geddes said he drove to West Kingston at about 7:30 a.m. on Saturday, July 7, and heard continuous bursts of gunfire, the majority of which came from the direction of the Coronation Command Post which housed the security forces.

He said he later saw residents and members of the security forces to whom he spoke, amidst gunfire. He said he tried to go into Tivoli Gardens, but hesitated because the gunfire had intensified and he was unable to see who was firing.

Later, at the Denham Town Police Station, Geddes said he was told that Mr. Seaga was holding a press briefing at the Tivoli Gardens Community Centre. He said sometime after 10 a.m., he drove to Industrial Terrace to go to the conference, but met upon several roadblocks. He said men manning the roadblocks told him of alternative routes to get to the community centre.

Having reached the community centre, he said he saw residents, other journalists, attorney Abe Dabdoub, Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) Senator James Robertson and Mr. Seaga's bodyguards. Geddes said Mr. Seaga arrived at the community centre shortly after and commented that it was members of the security forces alone who were firing the barrage of gunshots into the area.

Geddes said he told Mr. Seaga that he had heard that two members of the security forces had been shot dead and Mr. Seaga promised to investigate the report.

He said soon after columnist Mark Wignall joined other members of the media. He added that amidst heavy gunfire coming from Bustamante Highway and Spanish Town Road, Mr. Seaga started the press briefing on the patio of an enclosed area inside the community centre.

"As it (gunfire) intensified, it seemed as if it was getting closer to where we were seated," Geddes testified. "This made some of the people uncomfortable." He said, however, that Mr. Seaga and other JLP officials at the head table appeared unperturbed. He said Mr. Seaga then decided to move the press briefing inside the office.

During this time, he said Mr. Walker, sporting a bullet-proof vest, hid under a table while Television Jamaica's (TVJ's) reporter Carol Francis also sought refuge at a safer spot. Geddes said the press briefing was then aborted and reporters sought individual interviews with Mr. Seaga.

Later, Geddes said residents removed the roadblocks to allow him to leave the community centre. He said he then visited the intersection of Marcus Garvey Drive and Industrial Terrace where he spoke with members of the security forces.

He said he left and went back up Industrial Terrace to the traffic lights in front of the Denham Town Police Station. Geddes said, he saw several policemen and soldiers running towards the station dodging bullets "as if they were performing some type of war dance".

He said they quickly ran for refuge up Albert Street, because the gate to the Denham Town Police Station was locked. Geddes added that he then drove right onto Spanish Town Road heading towards the Coronation Command Post where he said it appeared "all hell broke loose".

"There were sounds of gunfire and explosions and the gunfire was very intense," Geddes said. "And I realised I was heading right into the middle of it."

He said the sounds appeared to have been coming from the right side of Spanish Town Road. He said he reversed his vehicle back onto the top of Industrial Terrace from where he recorded the sounds of the gunfire and explosions, which were played at the Enquiry yesterday.

Continuing his evidence, Geddes said he later saw three bodies lying on Spanish Town Road, two of which appeared to have been males. He said he could not get near the bodies, because residents told him he could be shot if he did.

Geddes said at about 10 a.m. the next day, Sunday, July 8, he visited Denham Town and was told there were two more bodies on the street. He said the three bodies he had seen the day before were still not removed.

He said he then returned to Industrial Terrace where he saw about 12 men trying to escape what they said was the onslaught of the security forces on Tivoli Gardens. He said the men also told him there were persons outside the community who were planning to demonstrate and mount roadblocks the next day as a mark of sympathy with Tivoli Gardens residents and the security forces to ease the pressure on the community.

"What was unmistakably clear was that they (residents) were hoping Monday was like an hour away," Geddes testified.

When cross-examined by Jacqueline Samuels-Brown, one of the lawyers representing the police, Geddes said he only saw members of the security forces armed with guns. He said that he doesn't know if any of the residents he spoke with in West Kingston was armed with guns at any time.

He further said that Mr. Seaga was incorrect in saying only members of the security forces had been firing guns, as it was obvious that gunfire was also coming from Tivoli Gardens.

Under cross-examination from attorney-at-law Dennis Daly Q.C., one of the lawyers representing the office of the Public Defender, Geddes reiterated that members of the security forces at Denham Town were shot at from the direction of Tivoli Gardens and Spanish Town Road.

When cross-examined by attorney-at-law Linton Walters, one of the lawyers representing the People's National Party (PNP), Geddes confirmed there were demonstrations and roadblocks mounted in JLP strongholds on Monday, July 9, this year.

The Enquiry resumes on Monday, November 12.

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