- The Washington Times - Monday, February 12, 2007

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — On the dusty streets of Haiti’s largest slum, young men in baggy clothes lounge outside bullet-pocked shacks, listening for the rumble of armored vehicles carrying U.N. peacekeepers.

In the seaside slum of Cite Soleil, those are the sounds that precede gunbattles and bloodshed, sending the youths and everyone else rushing for cover.

Frustrated by unrelenting kidnappings for ransom, killings and other crimes, the United Nations is taking on the powerful gangs that have flourished in the chaos after the ouster of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 2004.

The raids have the blessing of current President Rene Preval, who angrily warned gangs last year to “disarm or die.”

Most U.N. peacekeeping forces deploy after the guns have fallen silent, but the Haiti mission goes on the offensive nearly every day. Sent in more than two years ago, the 9,000-strong force is pushing deeper into Cite Soleil and holding its ground with bases and checkpoints.

Haiti’s ruling class welcomes them, and the veto-wielding governments on the U.N. Security Council are united in wanting an end to the Caribbean country’s nearly two decades of political upheaval.

“It’s a new experience in U.N. peacekeeping,” said David Wimhurst, a spokesman for the U.N. mission. “It hasn’t been easy, but we’re making headway.”

The crackdown has led to the killing or capture of several reputed gangsters. Critics say it also has taken innocent lives in Cite Soleil, where 300,000 people scrape out a meager existence on streets lined with ditches of raw sewage.

In a major operation Friday, more than 700 U.N. troops stormed Cite Soleil to seize a large swath of the slum from gang control. A firefight lasting several hours left two soldiers injured and at least one gang suspect dead.

“We’re encircling them. It’s like a medieval siege, just trying to put pressure on them,” Edmond Mulet, the U.N. special envoy to Haiti, told reporters at U.N. headquarters on Jan. 29.

Mr. Mulet said the force takes fire “every day” and called gang leaders “psychopaths” who wantonly kidnap and kill law-abiding Haitians.

Alix Fils-Aime, a top security adviser to Mr. Preval, said the gangs win favor in Cite Soleil partly by sharing their loot with the poor. Robert Argant, president of the Haitian Chamber of Commerce, said, “These guys are using the money they steal from people to get others around them to support them.”

The gang members insist they are soldiers fighting for equality in a country where about 80 percent of people live on less than $2 a day and a tiny elite controls the economy.

“They call us gangsters, but everyone in this world is a gangster. When you’re hungry, you’re angry. When you’re thirsty, you’re angry. When somebody is against you, you have to be angry,” said a gang member who identified himself only as Yamoska.

Mr. Preval, overwhelmingly elected a year ago, has sent emissaries to the gangs to negotiate a peaceful disarmament, while at the same time deploying the national police to Cite Soleil for the first time since Mr. Aristide’s ouster.

The government also encourages the gangs to trade their weapons for job training and economic aid, but that effort has disarmed only about 100 men and recovered a small pile of rusty, antiquated guns.

The gang members are no strangers to struggle. After Haiti’s now-disbanded army toppled Mr. Aristide in a 1991 coup, paramilitary death squads sprayed Mr. Aristide’s slum strongholds with gunfire, killing an untold number of people. Some of today’s gang members were orphaned by the killings, which eased in 1994 when U.S. troops restored Mr. Aristide.

Committed to maintaining support in the slums, Mr. Aristide sent the gangs money, food and — by some accounts — weapons. Many gang members remain loyal to him today and say the United Nations is allied with their enemies. Several told the Associated Press that they want to lay down their arms but fear being vulnerable to U.N. raids.

The latest U.N. offensive began late last year, prompted by a string of bold, daylight kidnappings. Many victims were schoolchildren snatched off the street. One teenager was slain by her captors after her family failed to come up with a ransom. She was shot in both eyes.

On Dec. 22, peacekeepers stormed Cite Soleil to break up a kidnap gang. When fighting ended five hours later, at least six persons were dead and an unknown number wounded, the United Nations said.

The U.N. force said that only gang members died, citing information from informants. But people in Cite Soleil said at least 10 persons were killed and none was a gang member. They gathered the bodies in an empty schoolhouse and demanded justice as female relatives sobbed.

“People have been killed, houses have been burned and lives have been destroyed. We want an investigation,” said Webster Maurice, a Cite Soleil activist.

U.N. officials say peacekeepers try to avoid harming bystanders.

In most of the 15 U.N. peacekeeping missions around the world, international troops are used mainly as police to maintain order in post-conflict countries. Peacekeepers have clashed with militants in Congo and Sierra Leone, but only in Haiti do they routinely take on armed street gangs, said Mr. Wimhurst, the U.N. mission spokesman.

“We normally deal with rebel groups or armed factions who have leaders and have agreed to disarm or enter into a political agreement. Here, none of that is true. They’re just a bunch of gangs who fight us,” he said.

Fifteen foreign soldiers and policemen, including several killed in clashes with gangs, have died.

In most raids, blue-helmeted peacekeepers enter the slums in armored cars and on foot to secure gang-controlled neighborhoods, arrest criminals and recover weapons. They may fire only if attacked.

Few in Haiti think Cite Soleil will calm down unless its staggering poverty is addressed.

The United States has announced a $20 million grant to create jobs and provide other aid, and foreign donors are helping improve the ill-equipped police force. But the country still has only about 6,000 police — an eighth of what it is thought to need.

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