BRASILIA, Brazil - More than 150 Brazilians were murdered each day last year on average, putting Brazil on a par with some war zones in terms of its homicide rate, the Justice Ministry said today.

Some 55,000 Brazilians died of homicide in 2005 - a few thousand more civilians than in three years of war in Iraq, according to leading estimates.

Brazil, a continent-sized nation of 185 million people starkly divided into rich and poor, has had notoriously high crime rates for years. Millions of poor live in urban slums and unpoliced rural areas where guns are easy to come by.

Though the murder rate is high, Marcelo Durante, co-ordinator of the Justice Ministry's report, said homicides have fallen slowly in recent years thanks in part to an initiative to collect guns from the streets.

Citizens have voluntarily turned in thousands of weapons in places like Rio de Janeiro, the famous beachside city whose urban slums have some of the highest crime rates in Brazil.

A referendum in 2005 to ban gun sales failed, in part because some voters had lost faith in police.

"It was the states that collected the most guns that saw crime rates fall most," said Durante, "but we have to remember it's not just about guns."

Other kinds of violent crime in Brazil are far more common than statistics show, Durante said, adding that urban surveys suggest only a quarter of all robberies and 15 per cent of all rapes are reported nationwide.

"At least with homicide, we can be a little more confident most of the crimes are getting reported," he said.

Murders also declined in Brazil's largest city of Sao Paulo in recent years, Durante said. Earlier this year, however, a gang known as First Command of the Capital launched a series of attacks on police, banks and buses in which about 200 police, gangsters and innocent civilians were killed.