- The Washington Times - Monday, August 29, 2005

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — A U.S.-backed effort to reform and disarm anti-government gangs went horribly wrong 10 days ago when hooded police and machete-wielding civilian backers attacked participants at a soccer game, killing at least six persons.

The Aug. 20 incident in the hillside slum of Martissant has fueled fears of further violence in the run-up to presidential balloting in November.

The “Play for Peace” soccer match was financed and sponsored by the U.S. Agency for International Development, and was designed to steer young people away from the gang violence that has beset Haiti since President Jean-Bertrand Aristide fled into exile in February 2004.

Witnesses to the Aug. 20 massacre said about 6,000 spectators were packed into the soccer stadium when police officers ordered everyone to the ground. Shots rang out, and people ran for the walled field’s only exit.

Police fired wantonly into the crowd, witnesses and relatives of victims said. Outside, they said, civilians armed with machetes and more police officers attacked people trying to flee the chaos.

“They came to massacre us,” said Nesly Devla, 20, showing a sewn-up, 3-inch machete gash on his forehead and another on his hand. “Everyone was on top of each other. There was nowhere to run. God saved me.”

Anne Sosin, a human rights observer at the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti, says she has confirmed the deaths of at least eight persons, but the toll could go much higher.

Police spokeswoman Gessy Coicou said six bodies were brought to the morgue. Mrs. Coicou declined to talk further about the incident except to say that police would conduct an investigation.

A U.S. Embassy representative said: “The embassy is dismayed by reports of violence at the USAID-sponsored soccer match last weekend. We express our condolences to the families of the victims.

“The purpose of these events is to create alternatives to violence for youth in poor communities. We have asked the Haitian national police and their U.N. … advisers for a thorough investigation.”

Less than a month earlier, two other grisly machete attacks also appeared to take place with police complicity.

The incidents all occurred in poor neighborhoods of Port-au-Prince that are considered bastions of support for Mr. Aristide and have raised doubts about the effectiveness of a U.N. peacekeeping force that has been in Haiti for nearly 15 months.

“These killings set a dangerous precedent,” Miss Sosin said. “How can you explain police accompanied by individuals armed with machetes massacring spectators at a soccer match with U.N. troops standing by literally across the street?”

U.N. and government officials portrayed the machete killings as a reaction from angry residents who resorted to spontaneous vigilante justice after becoming fed up with gang violence.

“We are worried about the cases of lynchings in recent weeks,” said Jean-Francois Vezina, Canadian spokesman for the U.N. Civilian Police, which is mandated with training and monitoring its Haitian counterpart.

But witnesses at the soccer match said the killings there were neither spontaneous nor carried out with popular support. They said they recognized some of the machete-wielding civilians as “attaches,” or local criminals who reportedly are paid police informants and assassins.

“According to the people we work with in the community, this was not popular justice. They are saying this was a planned aggression, an attack to destabilize the community,” said Philippe Branchat, an employee of the International Organization for Migration who manages the Haiti Transition Initiative, the USAID-program that sponsored the soccer game.

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