- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 13, 2006

GRAND RAVINE, Haiti — The killings began before dawn. Gunmen walked through this hillside slum warning of a fire and yelling for residents to come out of their cinder block and sheet-metal shacks. Those who followed their advice were fatally shot.

Hours later, morgue workers and United Nations’ peacekeepers piled corpses in one of the slum’s main thoroughfares, a rocky streambed at the bottom of the ravine for which this neighborhood is named. The body count totaled 21, including three women and four children. Most of the victims were killed execution-style with a single bullet to the head.

“I’ve never seen anything like this,” said Jean Gabriel Ambrose, the Port-au-Prince justice of the peace. “What is shocking is that all of the victims appear to have been innocent.”

For several weeks, rival gangs had exchanged fire in a turf war over control of the slum. But family members, neighbors, human rights observers and police all agree the victims of last Friday’s massacre were not gang members, making U.N. and Haitian officials suspect it was a politically motivated attempt to destabilize the newly elected government led by President Rene Preval.

“I don’t believe it was a spontaneous attack,” said Desmond Molloy, who heads the U.N. peacekeeping mission’s disarmament program in Haiti. “This massacre creates an atmosphere of fear, and when people are afraid, it’s very hard to establish any degree of stability.”

The killings in Grand Ravine shattered five months of relative peace since Mr. Preval’s February electoral victory. The election marked the first sign of improvement after two years of crisis and violence after the departure of former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide into exile in February 2004.

In Grand Ravine and the neighboring slum of Martissant, opposing gangs made peace during a March 19 soccer match sponsored by the United Nations, and they handed authorities a grenade and a firearm in a symbolic gesture. But the truce did not last long.

“In recent weeks, we’d been aware of a heightening of tensions among the gangs in this area along political and territorial lines,” Mr. Molloy said.

On one side was a gang based in Grand Ravine associated with Mr. Aristide’s Lavalas party. On the other side were two anti-Aristide gangs — one based in a slum called Ti Bwa and a second called the Little Machete Army.

The latter earned its name at a soccer match in August 2005 that ended with police officers shooting in the stadium and the machete-wielding gang hacking fleeing spectators to death.

Grand Ravine residents and government officials blame the Little Machete Army and the Ti Bwa gang for last week’s massacre. What remains a mystery is what provoked it.

Haitian Police Chief Mario Andresol suspects the attack was related to the killings last year, which appeared to be a joint effort by the Little Machete Army and rogue police officers to eliminate the Grand Ravine gang, some of whose members were at the match.

Chief Andresol arrested 15 police officers for their participation in the soccer stadium killings, but the judge handling the case has since released most of them.

“This is my 13th conflict, and it’s been the toughest one to find out what’s really going on,” said Mr. Molloy, who oversaw disarmament in Sierra Leone before coming to Haiti. “There are a lot of smoke and mirrors. It’s very difficult to nail down the motives behind actions in Haiti.”

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