KINGSTOWN, St. Vincent – Venezuelans and Vincentians alike want details about the allege shootout at sea off Union Island Sunday that left three national of the south American nation and local Customs guard Othneil Whyte dead.
The quest for information comes amidst conflicting reports from police in Kingstown and pleas for assistance from families in Margarita.
Esperanza de Mata, mother of three of the Venezuelan men aboard the fishing trawler reportedly involved in a shootout with local police, has said she wants President Hugo Chavez to intervene.
“I call on President Chavez to help me out of this distress. I want to see my sons walk through that door,” Mata said according to Noticias 24, a Spanish language website.
The mother is also requesting the help of Venezuelan foreign affairs officials amidst unofficial reports about the fate of the men, the website said.
The Internet portal identified the men as brothers Degris, Deivis, and David Mata, sons of de Mata, along with their cousins Darwin and Derbys Mata, and their brothers-in-law Natividad and Humberto Mata.
Vincentian police say that a corporal from the Rapid Response Unit and Whyte came under hostile gunfire when they went to investigate the Venezuelans’ boat – El Amigo Fay.
The cop returned fire, killing three of the men and injuring another.
State divers also retrieved from the seafloor in the vicinity where the shootout reportedly took place a packaged substance believed to be cocaine that was tied to an anchor.
Whyte, whose body was found floating at sea hours after the incident, drowned, police said Wednesday, citing an autopsy report, correcting their report on Tuesday that he had fallen to hostile fire.
But the relatives of the Venezuelan men say that none of them were armed, adding that they were fishermen seeking a livelihood. The incident occurred one week after the men set sail from Margarita, according to the Internet report.
The distressed mother said that she has not been in contact with the men since Sunday afternoon, when boat captain Degris Mata assured them that the fishing was going well and that they should be back in Margarita by this Sunday.
The Venezuelan Embassy in Kingstown said in a statement that state authorities here notified them of the incident at 6 a.m. Sunday.
This suggests that Whyte was missing at sea for 14 hours before he was found, since, according to local media reports, he was found at sea with a week pulse around 8 p.m. Sunday. Healthcare providers in Union Island failed to resuscitate him, the reports say.
The Embassy further said in its statement that it has contacted Commissioner of Police Keith Miller and Prime Minister and Minister of National Security Dr Ralph Gonsalves “in order to cooperate with investigations of the event and to receive information on the full identification of those arrested, injured and dead, so that the relevant authorities and families in Venezuela can be informed”.
It further said it shares with the government and law enforcement authorities “the fight to combat all forms of criminality, including fuel smuggling, illegal fishing and drug trafficking” under the existing Caracas-Kingstown agreement.
“… we deeply regret the death during these events of customs official Othneil Whyte, whose family we send our heartfelt words of sympathy and offer our respect and consideration in this painful time,” the Embassy further said in its statement.
Eustace expects ‘formal and explanatory statement from the police’
Meanwhile, Opposition Leader Arnhim Eustace, who is also shadow minister for national security, said Wednesday he look forward to “a formal and explanatory statement from the police”, even as he expressed condolences to the family of the dead men, especially Whyte.
“I haven’t heard that (a formal statement) yet. I don’t want to assume anything. I think the incident is significant enough for us to have a statement from the police on this matter because four persons have lost their lives, one of them a public servant from St. Vincent and the Grenadines,” he said at an New Democratic Party press conference.
“So, I am waiting the comment from the police because I have so many different versions of the story and I am expecting this to be done very shortly. I think this should have had something already,” said Eustace, who on Monday expressed concern about police silence on the incident.
PM visit Whyte’s family
Gonsalves and Miller visited Union Island after the incident Sunday. He praised the actions of the cop and Whyte, a married father of four who was a customs guard for 21 years. “Clearly these two public officials went to extraordinary lengths in pursuance of their duties, and I can only reiterate we should be very happy that we have dedicated police office officers, and in this case a customs guard, as exemplified in this incident,” Searchlight quoted Gonsalves as saying.
Gonsalves also visited White’s family, prayed with them and offered condolences and announced that the state will pay for his funeral expenses, according to the newspaper.