The Defence Force has said warning shots fired by soldiers during Monday's protest action by Beetham Gardens residents were necessary to disperse the crowd and to ensure there was no damage to property or people.That was the response from civil military affairs officer of the Defence Force, Major Al Alexander, yesterday after video footage showed the residents scampering when soldiers fired shots.
On Monday residents vented their anger over the killing of Beetham Gardens resident Christopher Greaves, insisting he was shot in the back by police as he left a shop with a soft drink.They blocked the Beetham Highway causing a traffic jam for several hours on the day the new school term opened.Video footage also showed several residents hurling objects at the soldiers before the shots were fired.
Saying he had seen the video, Alexander added: "First of all the soldiers did not shoot at anyone or fired at anyone. They fired warning shots in the air to disperse the crowd to bring about some level of calm and civility."If you look at the video you would see the crowd right up on the soldiers... coming closer and closer. The situation was clearly escalating ,so at that stage it became necessary to fire the warning shots. No one was hurt and nothing was damaged."
Alexander said apart from the missiles thrown at the soldiers there were also unconfirmed reports that the soldiers were shot at ,which could also have prompted the warning shots to be fired.On what was the specific role and who was in charge of the soldiers at Beetham Gardens on Monday, Alexander said they were there in support of the police, who were in command."Our role is more of a supportive role, and the police have the lead role. Our role is always to aid the civil power, which the police would play."
But Alexander said the soldiers were not necessarily answerable to the police."While we lend key assistance to the police in the form of patrols and so on ,the Defence Force has its own internal command and procedures. If, for instance, a soldier shoots someone, then that person will have to appear before a board of inquiry in the Defence Force."So it's not to say the police are responsible for us. We have our own systems to work with"
Asked who would have given the command to fire the warning shots, Alexander said he was unsure, adding: "The soldiers would have been given that order, because they would not have acted on their own."Apart from armed soldiers, the Defence Force also deployed its own riot team at Beetham Gardens on Monday to support the police."We have our own riot team, with shields, and members were in the front and at the back of the police at all times, as another measure of support," Alexander added.
The video also showed the police throwing tear gas to disperse the crowd. That measure also was backed by the Police Service Social and Welfare Association, which said the officers responded appropriately to the situation.Commenting yesterday, the association's secretary, acting Insp Michael Seales, said: "We are concerned about the welfare of our officers. They responded accordingly to the situation and used the necessary method, because the situation was more than that of a crowd–it was a riot.
"There was an officer with a tear-gas canister in his hand, but another officer told him to hold his hand. It was only when stones and bottles were thrown at the shields of the lawmen was the tear gas thrown to bring control."Seales said while the police respected the right to protest, law-abiding citizens must not suffer as a result.
He said several drivers using the Beetham Highway on Monday expressed concern to the police that they were afraid to use the route, fearing their lives and those of their children were in danger.