U.N. mission in Haiti takes violent turn

#1
U.N. mission in Haiti takes violent turn as troops face off with armed groups ahead of elections
March 21, 2005 3:42 PM EST

TERRE-ROUGE, Haiti - U.N. peacekeepers, criticized for inaction during their 10 months in Haiti, are taking on ex-soldiers from the nation's disbanded army in clashes that left two peacekeepers and two Haitian fighters dead - and the mission leader say more is to come.

The showdown signals a tougher stance against armed factions in Haiti ahead of fall elections and reflects a broader U.N. determination to crack down on militias that threaten civilians where blue helmets are deployed.

The offensive in Haiti began Sunday when U.N. forces raided a police station occupied by armed ex-soldiers in Petit-Goave, 45 miles (72 kilometers) west of Port-au-Prince, setting of a fierce gunbattle that left two former soldiers and one Sri Lankan peacekeeper dead - the first fatality suffered by the 7,400 strong force since it arrived in June, 2004.

Later Sunday, Nepalese soldiers driving to the central town of Hinche exchanged gunfire with a different group of former soldiers, killing one Nepalese peacekeeper, U.N. spokesman Damian Onses-Cardona said.

Then on Monday, about 300 Brazilian and Nepalese peacekeepers backed by armored cars and helicopters raided the town of Terre-Rouge where ex-soldiers had occupied a police station, retaking the area without casualties as the ex-soldiers retreated into the surrounded hills, U.N. officials said.

"The message is clear. We want these people (ex-soldiers) out. They must give up their guns and submit to the law," said Lt. Gen. Augusto Heleno Ribeiro, the Brazilian commander of the U.N. peacekeepers in Haiti. "We would prefer to have a peace dialogue, but if we can't we won't hesitate to act."

"We aren't finished yet. This is all part of our strategy," said Heleno Ribeiro.

The clashes marked the first major confrontation between the U.N. force and former members of Haiti's disbanded army, who helped oust former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in a 1991 coup and again in an armed rebellion a year ago.

The raids also followed months of criticism that peacekeepers have been too passive toward armed groups, including ex-soldiers and pro- and anti-Aristide street gangs. The groups are blamed for more than 400 killings since September and some fear they could disrupt fall elections.

"This is a real moment of truth for the United Nations," said Daniel Erikson, a Caribbean affairs expert with the Washington-based Inter-American Dialogue. "They've suffered their first casualties, and now the question is whether they will back down in the face of opposition or retrench and move forward."

The U.N. peacekeepers in Haiti have what's called a Chapter Seven mandate, which gives them broad power to protect civilians from harm. While the United Nations has made no formal announcement, there has been evidence in other missions - most notably Congo- of peacekeepers running more patrols to deter violence rather than sticking to their bases.

On Feb. 25, nine U.N. peacekeepers were killed by militiamen in Congo. Soon after, U.N. peacekeepers raided a village occupied by the militia responsible for that attack and killed up to 60 people, but officials denied the two events were connected.

Since then, U.N. officials have also highlighted the heavily armed patrols that peacekeepers conduct in Congo to round up weapons from the militias. U.N. diplomats had also expressed impatience with the militias, which continue to destabilize Congo as it tries to recover from a five-year, six-nation war.

"The U.N. has traditionally kept peace. It hasn't done war fighting, but when you're confronted with people who are fighting you, you have to exercise self-defense and take them out, basically," Britain's U.N. Ambassador Emyr Jones-Parry said after the Congo fighting.

In Haiti, U.N. peacekeepers had a 10-minute exchange of gunfire with the ex-soldiers in Terre-Rouge, a town about 25 miles (40 kilometers) northeast of the capital, but found the police station empty, said Heleno Ribeiro.

"We're now in control of the area," he said, adding that no one on either side was apparently killed in fighting. About 300 U.N. troops took part in the operation.

Addressing a crowd in Terre-Rouge Sunday afternoon, a leader of the ex-soldiers issued a call to arms for former fighters.

"I'm calling out to all former soldiers throughout the country to rise up," Remissainthe Ravix, who Haitian police accuse of killing four policemen, said in comments broadcast on Radio Galaxy.

The ex-soldiers, many well into their 50s with fading uniforms and aging rifles, have bucked calls by the interim government and the U.N. force to disarm. Since September, they've occupied police posts in three towns - Petit-Goave, Terre-Rouge and Thomazeau, according to the United Nations. Aristide disbanded the army in 1995, four years after he was ousted.

Erikson said the timing of the U.N. offensive reflects an acknowledgment by the U.N. force that Haiti's shaky security climate "is on a collision course with elections."

"I think the U.N. is reaching the same conclusion as its international critics, that elections in Haiti won't be possible unless peacekeepers confront Haitian gangs" and other armed groups, Erikson said.

---

Associated Press Writers Nick Wadhams in the United Nations and Donna Bryson, the Europe-Africa editor in London, contributed to the report.

(sj-dk)
Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved
 
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