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Guardsmen ' played cards' amid New Orleans chaos: police official 

By Agence France Presse

09/03/05 "AFP"
-- -- A top New Orleans police officer said that National Guard troops sat around playing cards while people died in the stricken city after Hurricane Katrina.

New Orleans deputy police commander W.S. Riley launched a bitter attack on the federal response to the disaster though he praised the way the evacuation was eventually handled.

His remarks fuelled controversy over the government's handling of events during five days when New Orleans succumbed to lawlessness after Katrina swamped the city's flood defenses.

The National Guard commander, Lieutenant General Steven Blum, said the reservist force was slow to move troops into New Orleans because it did not anticipate the collapse of the city's police force.

But Riley said that for the first three days after Monday's storm, which is believed to have killed several thousand people, the police and fire departments and some volunteers had been alone in trying to rescue people.

"We expected a lot more support from the federal government. We expected the government to respond within 24 hours. The first three days we had no assistance," he told AFP in an interview.

Riley went on: "We have been fired on with automatic weapons. We still have some thugs around. My biggest disappointment is with the federal government and the National Guard.

"The guard arrived 48 hours after the hurricane with 40 trucks. They drove their trucks in and went to sleep.

"For 72 hours this police department and the fire department and handful of citizens were alone rescuing people. We have people who died while the National Guard sat and played cards. I understand why we are not winning the war in Iraq if this is what we have."

Riley said there is "a semblance of organisation now."

"The military is here and they have done an excellent job with the evacuation" of the tens of thousands of people stranded in the city.

The National Guard commander said the city police force was left with only a third of its pre-storm strength.

"The real issue, particularly in New Orleans, is that no one anticipated the disintegration or the erosion of the civilian police force in New Orleans," Blum told reporters in Washington.

"Once that assessment was made ... then the requirement became obvious," he said. "And that's when we started flowing military police into the theatre."

On Friday, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin denounced the slow federal response as too little, too late, charging that promised troops had not arrived in time.

"Now get off your asses and let's do something and fix the biggest goddamn crisis in the history of this country," the mayor said in remarks aired on CNN.

Blum said that since Thursday some 7,000 National Guard and military police had moved into the city. President George W. Bush on Saturday ordered an additional 7,000 active duty and reserve ground troops.

Blum said any suggestion that the National Guard had not performed well or was late was a "low blow". 

The initial priority of the Louisiana and Mississippi National Guard forces was disaster relief, not law enforcement, because they expected the police to handle that, he said. 

The police commander was unable to give a death toll for New Orleans. 

"We have bodies all over the city. A federal mortuary team was supposed to come in within 24 hours. We haven't seen them. It is inhumane. This is just not America." 

Riley said he did not even know how many police remained from a normal force of 1,700. 

"Many officers lost their homes or their families and there are many we have not heard from. Some officers could not handle the pressure and left. I don't know if we have 800 or thousands today."

Copyright 2005 Agence France Presse.

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