“Fiery Friday” at Linden
- Anger boils over at Police pre-dawn tear gas offensive
- Buildings razed on both sides river
- Police say suspected acts of arson
- Joint Services deny operation to clear barriers
- Six detained for various offences
Anger at a surprise tear gas offensive, smoldering debris from buildings burnt to the ground, and a battle to keep the streets clear, characterized the town of Linden yesterday as the government put off a key meeting intended to hammer out a deal and return the town to normalcy.
The protest against electricity tariff increase in the town is now into its fourth week and Lindeners are maintaining their demand – for the increases to be withdrawn and for President Donald Ramotar to meet them and thrash out the events that followed the first day of the protest when three residents were shot dead by Police.
Palpable tension gripped the town in the wee hours of the morning as conflagrations raged on both sides of the Demerara River. A total of six buildings and two vehicles were destroyed.
Residents claimed that the mayhem started when ranks of the Joint Services swooped down on the community in an effort to remove barricades, using teargas to disperse those present, and even throwing canisters with the pungent substance into people’s yards.
A nurse at the town’s main hospital confirmed that one of the tear gas canisters was hurled into the office of the Chief Executive Farouk Riyastat, and he had to be rushed to the emergency room along with his secretary.
The Joint Services Coordinating Council (JSCC) denied that it was involved in any operation to clear barriers in the early morning hours yesterday at the western end of the Wismar Bridge.
In a statement, the Council said that at approximately 02:20 hours, protestors raised an alarm that the Joint Services were on their way to clear barriers, “but that was not the case at all.”
“As a result, protestors and supporters numbering thirty, including women, stormed past the Joint Services Standing Patrol on the western end of the bridge and lit the bridge afire at the centre. The Joint Services Standing Patrol summoned the Police and the Fire Service. The Police cleared the protestors using tear smoke and the Fire Service put out the fire. By the time the fire was out, more residents came out of their homes and the situation deteriorated. The Joint Services did not escalate the situation at Linden.”
The day was dubbed “Fiery Friday” by many of the residents who stressed that they had never experienced anything similar.
First it was the Linden Salvation Council building and the Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints Church at Silvertown, Wismar, and another edifice aback of it, which housed the old GECOM Office. Those went up in flames in the wee hours of the morning.
A few hours later on the Mackenzie side, at least four buildings were also ablaze – among them, structures which housed the offices of the Guyana Revenue Authority (GRA), Linden Care Foundation and Linden Electricity Company Incorporated (LECI) and the IDCE (Institute of Distance and Continuing Education). A canteen was also razed. The Linmine Secretariat annex was the only structure left standing. Two trucks belonging to LECI were also ruined.
The burnt buildings up until recently stood a mere stone’s throw away from the Linmine Secretariat building which was gutted on July 18, the first day of protest in the community. The incident occurred shortly after the shooting to death of three Lindeners, allegedly by police.
In both instances yesterday, no fire tender made it to the scene, because of blockades, which included logs, burning tyres and broken bottles, on the roads.
At Mackenzie, several heaped up tyres were used to light a huge fire at the Five Corner. Some traffic was allowed to certain areas in the town.
The Wismar fire reportedly erupted at the old GECOM building after it was claimed that police ‘shot’ tear gas canisters into a group of individuals indiscriminately. The building reportedly belonged to Phillip Bynoe. There are conflicting reports as to the origin of the fire.
Canisters of tear gas were also reportedly thrown into a few yards in Silvertown, with the result that residents had to run out of their homes in the wee hours, and seek refuge in the nearby New Silver City School. Some of the affected included babies and senior citizens.
When this newspaper arrived on the scene, people were seen running down the streets with rags and pieces of clothing covering their faces. Others rushed to get water to wash their faces and bodies.
The atmosphere was acrid from the burning buildings along with the tear gas.
A number of persons vociferously condemned this action by the police, who came in for further criticism after reports were made that they threw away ration from at least one food camp.
Residents reacted by hauling a huge log to the Wismar end of the Mackenzie/Wismar Bridge, right under the noses of the soldiers who remonstrated with the crowd.
In the end it was the soldiers who were forced to back down.
Fire in Mackenzie
No one seemed to know how the buildings on Casuarina Drive, Mackenzie, caught fire; but the GRA Office was the first to go up in flames. Then it was the LECI building.
Because all of the structures there were wooden, they ignited quickly forming a huge inferno. The heat from these burning buildings was so intense, that residents stood some distance away watching.
Some public-spirited citizens and a few soldiers, assisted in removing several pieces of furniture and appliances from the Linden Care Foundation premises.
Nothing was retrieved from the other buildings.
The toll booth, GEA booth and Linmine security huts were also torched.
These booths were located at the Mackenzie end of the Wismar / Mackenzie Bridge.
Meanwhile, late yesterday afternoon the Guyana Police Force issued a release in relation to the incidents saying: “At about 0210h. on Friday August 10, 2012, ranks of the Joint Services observed that a fire with the use of tyres, wood and other combustible materials was set on the wooden portion at the Wismar end of the Wismar-Mackenzie Bridge.
“A crowd of persons had gathered at the location of the fire and in efforts to have them remove in order that the Guyana Fire Service personnel can extinguish the blaze, the police were forced to resort to the use of tear smoke.
The crowd was dispersed and the fire extinguished. The Wismar-Mackenzie Bridge is still in use and the Joint Services are maintaining security.
Later, at about 0700h. another crowd of persons came across the Wismar-Mackenzie Bridge from the Wismar end with the apparent intention of immobilizing a front-end-loader that was parked in the vicinity of the bridge on the Mackenzie side. Persons placed themselves on the roadway in front of the machine, but were eventually removed and the equipment was removed to another location.
While the police ranks were dealing with the persons around the front-end-loader, it is suspected that other persons from the crowd set a fire which resulted in the destruction of the toll booth and the LINMINE Security guard hut located at the Mackenzie end of the bridge.
Fires caused by suspected acts of arson have destroyed a number of buildings in the Linden community.”
The release then identified the buildings that were destroyed, and continued:
“Efforts by the Guyana Fire Service personnel to get to the scene of the fire at the office complex were hampered by obstacles blocking the roadways and which also caused the destruction of the wheels of one of the fire-trucks.
Six men have been arrested by the police pending investigations into various offences and are in custody.”
Most of Linden was uneasy on Thursday night, and many residents complained of not being able to sleep as they were agitated over flyers that were dropped by the Joint Services, and reports that additional troops would be deployed to the area, to clear the roads “by whatever means.”
The troops came in by river, according to reports, and landed at the Mackenzie /Wismar Bridge.
Their presence in the mining town served to further stir up residents. They reacted by burning tyres and re-blocking roads. Many roads in Linden have been blocked for over three weeks now in protest against the imposition of increased electricity tariffs for the community.
During this period there have been several clashes between residents and the police, who along with the Joint Services have been fighting a valiant but losing battle to clear the roads.
Residents, including major stakeholders in the town, have resolved not to ‘retreat or surrender’ until the electricity tariffs are withdrawn.
They have vowed not to accept Government’s ‘on hold’ proposal, which was put forward by President Ramotar a few days ago.
Many Lindeners have opined that the government has shown total disrespect to the people, as not once during the entire period of protest has any government Minister visited the town.
The President has expressed that he will not visit the area once the situation remains the same in terms of blockades.
Meanwhile, a few persons were detained at the Mackenzie Police Station, in relation to the attempted burning of the Mackenzie/Wismar Bridge, and the torching of the toll and GEA booths, according to reports.