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Brazil city bans public transit vans in some areas

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JENNY BARCHFIELD | April 11, 2013 09:25 PM EST | AP

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RIO DE JANEIRO — Public transit vans like the one in which an American student was gang raped last month were banned Thursday from Rio de Janeiro's touristy South Zone neighborhoods.

The measure was floated late last year as a way to help ease the city's chronic traffic jams but gained urgency as a safety measure in the wake of the March 30 attack on the American woman and her French companion, who were attacked by a van driver and two other young men who brutalized them for about six hours inside the vehicle.

Under a decree published Thursday in the local government's Official Journal, the vans will be prohibited from operating in high-rent neighborhoods including Ipanema and Leblon beaches, as well as Copacabana, where the two foreigners boarded the van to travel to a nightlife hotspot in downtown. Exceptions will be made for vans serving two "favela" hillside slums sandwiched between high-rent South Zone neighborhoods, according to the decree, which takes effect on Monday.

Without the vans and with a key metro station closed pending the extension of the subway, residents and workers in the South Zone will need to rely on buses, taxis and private vehicles to get around.

The 12-seat vans are seen as a quicker alternative to buses and largely travel the same routes. They will continue to ply the poor, sprawling suburbs that ring this city of 6 million.

Thursday's decree was the second safety regulation for public vans put in place since the attack on the foreigners. Last week, the city ordered van operators to remove from their windows the dark tinting that made it nearly impossible to see what was going on inside.

Three men aged 20-22, as well as a minor, have been detained in connection with the attack.

Brazilian media reports have said two other women, both Brazilians, have since come forward to say they were also raped by the same gang. One of the women is said to have reported the rape to a police unit specializing in crimes against women well before the attack on the foreigners, but officers took little action to investigate the matter.

The head of the unit as well as another officer have since been fired.

The attacks have been a blow to Rio's image as the city gears up to host next year's soccer World Cup and the 2016 Olympic games.

Officials here have won praise in recent years for bringing down crime in this once notoriously violent city, and residents here had been basking in the city's most positive image in decades.