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Jamaica coup attempt may work in Premier's favor

By nipping what apparently was a coup attempt against his government, Jamaican Prime Minister Michael Manley may have strengthened his position in coming parliamentary elections.

But the coup disclosures do not at first glance lift Mr. Manley out of his underdog role in a campaign whose opening salvos have been shot even though no specific date has been set for the vote.

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The aborted attempt to overthrow the Manley government, disclosed last weekend following the arrest of two dozen plotters, was by all accounts a rather hair-brained effort.

It sought to bring down the Manley government by kidnapping the prime minister and seizing a small Jamaican Defense Force (JDF) base and a radio station in Kingston.

There was some speculation that the whole incident might be a Manley ploy to provide an excuse to call a state of emergency in advance of the elections. The prime minister called an one in advance of the 1976 elections. And the rival Jamaica Labour Party claimed it inhibited its campaign and contributed to its defeat that year.

But there is no evidence the coup attempt was anything other than what it appeared to be: an effort by a small group of Jamaicans, unconnected with either of the two major parties, who wanted to bring down the Manley government.

Full details of the incident have yet to be disclosed, but the prime minister told the House of Representatives late June 24 that a full-fledged investigation by the JDF is under way -- and that a detailed account of the aborted coup will be made public within days. Although the JDF is a logical agency to carry out the probe, the task is a rather unpleasant one for the highly respected, 3,000 -member military unit. Three of its own lower-rank officers are alleged to have been involved in the plotting.

The opposition Jamaica Labour Party, meanwhile, has disavowed any role in the alleged conspiracy. Deputy leader Pearnel Charles said June 24, "We had nothing , absolutely nothing, totally nothing, to do with this whole affair." Its leader , Edward Seaga, is in the United States.

Many opinion polls indicate that the JLP could easily win a majority in the election and that Mr. Seaga would replace Mr. Manley as prime minister.

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Whether the coup attempt significantly alters these projections remains to be seen.

But in the immediate aftermath of the disclosure, Mr. Manley is receiving an outpouring of public support. Jamaicans as a people are aghast that anything like this could happen here.

"It almost makes us look like a banana republic," a radio commentator said June 24 in a reference to the many coup d'etats that take place in banana-producing Central America. "It makes us realize that we cannot be so smug in the future."

Jamaica was calm in the wake of the coup attempt announcements. But speculation about the incident was rife. Mr. Manley's parliamentary appearance did not quell the speculation.

Government news media gave the story big attention.

"Coup Plot Smashed," bannered the government-owned Jamaica Daily News. It also hinted at US involvement, reporting that a US military attache had been seen visiting JDF headquarters several times in recent days.

But the Daily Gleaner, a government critic, quoted sources close to the JDF as saying that security forces were alerted to the plot by the US Embassy.

The embassy, however, studiously kept out of the question by refusing comment in what was described as a "purely Jamaican internal affair."

If all there is to the incident is a failed maneuver by a tiny group of Jamaicans unconnected with either of the two major parties, it will probably prove little more than a footnote in the election story.

But it has reminded Jamaicans that they may not be immune to such maneuverings. Additionally, the incident heightened the tensions felt on this Caribbean island.

The police information center reports 109 persons have been killed in political violence between Jan. 1 and June 16. This total is already more than the 93 killed in all of 1979 and it is close to the 119 killed in 1978.

To the Gleaner, this means "the society is on the verge of anarchy." It calls for curfews, searches, and police alerts and patrols.

As if answering this editorial that appeared before the coup attempt disclosure, the JDF June 24 cordoned off an eight-square-block area of downtown Kingston for a house-to-house, office-to-office search for weapons. It was a dramatic follow-up to the two days of speculation about coup fiasco.

"You can expect more such searches," said a JDF spokesman.

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