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Jamaica Riots Nix Gas-Tax Hike

Jamaica's prime minister says his government is ready to back down on a proposed increase in gas prices that sparked deadly riots and brought business on the island to a near standstill.

Prime Minister P.J. Patterson named a chairman to a special committee he said may advise a rollback on the planned gas tax. The panel was to make its recommendations to the government by Sunday so they can be considered by Patterson's Cabinet the following day, he said.

The announcement appeared likely to calm Jamaicans, who erupted in fury after the government proposed $100 million dollars in new taxes, most by a 30 percent levy on gas that raised prices from $1.55 dollar per gallon to $2 dollars.

Schools and shops reopened Thursday and roads were clear of debris from riots that killed six people this week.

Fiery roadblocks, looting and shootings forced businesses and schools to shut down. The violence also spurred fears of a further decline in Jamaica's tourist industry. That industry is already suffering from a spate of recent attacks on visitors, including the killing of a German tour operator.

The latest unrest led several airlines and three cruise ships Wednesday to cancel trips to the Caribbean island nation, a destination for up to 2 million tourists each year.

"The gas tax will be a joke compared to the money we are going to lose in tourism," resort owner Gordon Stewart said.

The last two Jamaican governments to significantly raise gas prices fell from power. There were deadly gas price riots in 1979 and 1985.

Before Patterson's announcement, Jamaicans blocked major roads with burning barricades of tires and furniture Wednesday, defying police who fired warning shots and tear gas. Some parts of the island suffered blackouts and telephone interruptions.

But a march Wednesday afternoon in Kingston called by the opposition Jamaica Labor Party was peaceful.

The special panel considering the gas tax will be led by Peter Moses, head of Citibank in Jamaica and president of a business group made up of manufacturers, importers and exporters. Moses has already indicated his opposition to the new taxes.

Patterson noted that the government would have to cut its budget or find another source of revenue if it does not impose the gas tax.

The proposed tax package was aimed at helping restore the lost money of two million depositors in failed banks, 500,000 policyholders in collapsed insurance companies and 55,000 pensioners.

Labor Party leader Edward Seaga warned Thursday that protesters would take to the streets again if Patterson's proposal did not lead to a scrapping of the proposed gas tax.

The first fatality of the protests was identified as Brenda Duncan, a 28-year-old pregnant woman who police said was shot Tuesday by a private security guard fending off looters.

A soldier was also killed during a clash with protesters, apparently shot by police.

Four other peple died of gunshot wounds at Kingston Public Hospital, said Carlene Nugent, a hospital official.

She said the hospital had admitted 23 people by Wednesday, most with gunshot wounds and some in critical condition. They included a police officer who was shot in the face Monday.

In the northern resort town of Montego Bay, where riots kept tourists confined to their hotels and beaches Monday, there appeared to be a slow recovery.

Some hotels reported cancellations. One said some tourists were stranded when British Airways canceled flights to Jamaica on Tuesday. But Dionne Montiff, manager of Montego Bay's Half Moon Hotel, said, "Normality has been restored."

On Wednesday, some tours in the area resumed.

Margueritaville, a Montego Bay bar usually packed with tourists, opened after being closed for two days. "We had a pretty good day Thursday," said a manager who gave her name only as Vanessa.

Benjamin Twogunns of Miami was drinking in a Montego Bay bar favored by locals Wednesday. The 50-year-old businessman said he had ventured downtown to see Monday's rioting.

"It was bad," he said. "But I saw worse when I lived in Detroit."

By Lloyd Williams