|Many gang members have now fled into a neighbouring shantytown as police continue their crackdown [Al Jazeera]
Residents of the Brazilian city of Rio de Janeiro are bracing for more violence as authorities widen a crackdown on drug gangs in the city's sprawling shantytowns.
At least 44 people have been killed following six days of gun battles as Brazilian soldiers and police exchanged gunfire with drug gang members in an operation that began on Sunday.
Security forces patrolled the entrances to Vila Cruzeiro, a major shantytown or "favela" in northern Rio de Janeiro, on Friday, a day after military vehicles for the first time penetrated the streets run by drug traffickers.
Police said they forced the criminals to flee uphill to another slum, and said they had wrestled control of the densely populated area back from drug gangs.
They also announced that they had confiscated more than one tonne of powder cocaine, crack and weapons in the operation.
Al Jazeera's Gabriel Elizondo, reporting from Rio de Janeiro, said that while it has already been a bloody week in the city, many residents are worried that the worst is yet to come.
"The attacks might be going on for six days but the incursion into the favelas has really just been 48 hours old, and gathering steam," he said.
"Some of the people here say that what they are seeing is just unbelievable, and they are used to violence but they have never seen this type of an incursion into the favelas ever, in the recent memory of this city.
"The police are trying to make incursions into the favelas, permanently hold the territories and then build it up with social programmes, but we are not even there yet ... right now its a military operation," he said.
Meanwhile, Roberto Sa, a senior state official, said police were patrolling the entrances to Morro do Alemao favela to prevent the traffickers from escaping.
Sa told reporters that there were no immediate plans to storm Morro do Alemao, but Jose Beltrame, the Rio state security chief, later said that security forces could go "wherever we want ... at any time we please" - a threat aimed at keeping the drug gangs off-balance.
"The finger that pulls the trigger is not the same as the one that counts the money from arms smuggling, and in that sense the government appears to be concerned with only one of them"
Marcelo Freixo, Rio state deputy
Brazilians have been glued to the continuous coverage of the violence on local television, which has shown buses engulfed in flames and elite police units battling their way through the slums.
Scores of men with packs and automatic rifles were seen scrambling up the hills beyond the slum, with many escaping in cars and on motorcycles.
Many had come to Vila Cruzeiro to escape fighting in nearby districts, and it was not immediately clear whether the police had defeated the gangs or merely sent them scattering off to fight another day.
"We've taken an important step, but nothing's been won," Beltrame, the state security chief, said.
"It's important to arrest people, to gather up drugs and ammunition, but it's more important to get them out of the territory," he said, referring to the drug traffickers that rule many of Rio's largest slums.
But Marcelo Freixo, a state deputy from Rio and longtime critic of local police tactics, said the operation would accomplish little.
"The police can enter Vila Cruzeiro and kill another hundred, but that won't solve the problem in Rio de Janeiro," he told AFP.
"The finger that pulls the trigger is not the same as the one that counts the money from arms smuggling, and in that sense the government appears to be concerned with only one of them."
Police said they were battling two factions of drug dealers that have joined forces seeking to disrupt a two-year-old pacification programme aimed at wresting the densely-populated areas from the gangs' grip.
At least 180 people have been detained since the violence erupted on Sunday. Many of those detained were caught holding bottles of gasoline, according to police, who said they had also seized weapons and drugs.
|Brazil's slums or "favelas" have long suffered from drug violence and serious crimes [Reuters/TV Globo]
Residents were shocked at the scale of the crackdown, but welcomed what they said was long-overdue action to combat the drug gangs.
"It's a real war operation," said Elias, a 44-year-old principal. "But it is necessary. This is the only way to confront the drug traffickers."
Some, however, blamed local authorities for allowing the situation to fester and attributed their new-found urgency to Brazil's hosting of the 2014 World Cup and then the Olympics two years later.
Around two million of Rio's inhabitants – a third of the population – live in more than 1,000 slums, locally known as "favelas".
Authorities hope to pacify 100 of the most violent ones by 2014.
In October 2009 drug gangs shot down a police helicopter near the Maracana stadium – one of the main sites of the upcoming World Cup – killing three officers.