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Hostages freed after armed gang members invade hotel

RIO DE JANEIRO - Heavily armed drug gang members engaged in an intense firefight with police, then fled into a luxury hotel popular with foreign tourists and held about 30 people hostage for three hours yesterday before surrendering.

The upscale, beachside neighborhood of Sao Conrado where the Intercontinental Hotel sits was transformed into a war zone as upward of 50 gunmen with high-caliber rifles, pistols and even hand grenades faced off with police.

A police spokeswoman said the gunbattle began when police spotted about 10 cars and vans leaving the Vidigal slum heading toward nearby Rocinha slum, one of Latin America's largest.

Both shantytowns are controlled by the Amigos dos Amigos (Friends of Friends) drug gang, and the spokeswoman said the gang members were leaving an all-night party in Vidigal when they ran into the police patrol and began shooting.

Bullets flew for about 40 minutes, terrifying residents of Sao Conrado, which contains a road linking the two slums. Most of the gunmen fled into Rocinha, but 10 ran into the Intercontinental where they grabbed hostages and holed up in the kitchen.

One woman was killed, and four bystanders and three policeman were wounded.

Police said initially that the dead woman was a bystander, but later said she was with the gunmen and had a warrant out for her arrest for alleged drug gang involvement.

Security in Rio de Janeiro is of great concern as the city prepares to host the final of the 2014 football World Cup and the 2016 Olympic Games. Officials have vowed to fight violence, and in the past year started an aggressive program of invading slums where heavily armed drug gangs hold sway, driving them out and creating police posts.

The Intercontinental is a favorite among foreign tourists, but the nationalities of those taken hostage was not immediately known. - AP

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