U.N. peacekeepers took command from an American-led multinational force Tuesday, facing uncertainty about troop numbers and funding, while flood victims wait for urgent help and armed rebels roam the countryside.
In a symbolic ceremony at the police academy, Brazilian army Gen. Augusto Heleno Ribeiro Pereira took control of the projected 8,000-strong U.N. force, only a fraction of which has arrived.
Ribeiro Pereira will formally take command toward the end of June when most of his troops are expected to arrive and U.S. forces leave.
Their initial mission will be to provide security, which includes disarming rebels who helped oust President Jean-Bertrand Aristide on Feb. 29, and pro-Aristide militants. Both sides have said they will disarm if the other side does the same, but the U.S.-led troops have collected fewer than 200 weapons.
“Disarmament is very important, but what is also important is the disarmament of the spirit and the desire to rebuild,” said Heleno as about 80 troops, including Brazilians, Chilean, Canadian and Nepalese, replaced their camouflage caps with blue U.N. berets.
Other countries’ forces to stay until fall
Fewer than a dozen of the 1,900 U.S. troops will stay in Haiti with the U.N. peacekeepers. Troops from other countries in the 3,600-member multinational force — France, Canada and Chile — will remain until September.
“The U.N. has a big job ahead of it, but they’re coming in with double the force and will be here for twice as much time,” U.S. Ambassador James Foley told The Associated Press.
“The operation will deal with security, but it will also help the government spread its authority, which is not the case now,” Foley said, noting that “rebels are still in control of a pretty significant chunk of real estate.”
The U.N. handover comes as the country of 8 million copes with deadly floods that have killed more than 1,700 in Haiti and the Dominican Republic. It was unclear whether the new troops would be involved in emergency operations to flooded areas.
The United Nations says the force will eventually number 6,700 troops and 1,622 civilian police from over two dozen countries, led by 1,200 Brazilian troops.
But when, or whether, the force will reach full strength is unclear. Brazil, Chile and Argentina have pledged up to 2,500 troops. Other countries, including troubled nations such as Nepal and Rwanda, have promised 750 troops each.
Haiti’s interim Prime Minister Gerard Latortue said he would try to persuade the Americans to extend their June departure, saying only U.S. troops have a “dissuasive effect” on the population. Barring that, he hoped the U.N. force would stay until Feb. 7, 2006, when an elected president should be installed.
Top job: Addressing poverty
He also asked the international community to tackle the root of Haiti’s instability, which he said was grinding poverty.
“What we need here is a U.N. mission that will not limit itself to maintaining the peace,” Latortue told reporters after the ceremony. “They will have to get involved in the development process.”
After a decade of failed missions, many in the traumatized nation wonder whether the peacekeepers can succeed.
This U.N. mission will again try to keep a tentative peace and again train an ill-equipped and understaffed police force.
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan has asked member nations to make a long-term commitment to transform Haiti — which has suffered more than 30 coups in 200 years — into “a functioning democracy.” But only a fraction of the $35 million he requested has arrived and the mission’s mandate remains six months.
Some Haitians are skeptical. “I don’t understand what they’re coming to do,” said Marie Andre, 31, from the flood-hit southern village of Fond Verrettes.
U.S. troops last intervened in Haiti in 1994 to restore Aristide after a 1991 coup.
In 1995, they handed over to U.N. peacekeepers. That mission was supposed to last a year but continued until February 2001, unfolding as the Haitian government held disputed 2000 legislative elections which ultimately soured relations with the international community and led to the freezing of hundreds of millions of aid dollars.
The mission was dealt another blow when its transport chief was dragged from his car by a mob and shot and killed in 2000. Annan closed that mission, citing a “combination of rampant crime, violent street protests and incidents of violence targeted at the international community.”
Hope for different outcome
This time the troops said they are hopeful it will be different.
“Here, it’s a lot more calm than in our country right now. We’re looking forward to doing humanitarian projects and really helping,” said Nepalese Army Maj. Deepak Basnyat, one of six soldiers on hand from his country at the ceremony.
Following the U.S. and U.N. missions a decade ago, Haitian leaders blamed the troops, saying neither had done enough to disarm factions, particularly the army that ousted Aristide in 1991 and that he in turn disbanded in 1995.
U.S. Marine Brig. Gen. Ronald S. Coleman said the U.S.-led force he commanded accomplished what it intended, bringing stability to a nation thrown into chaos as rebels and pro-Aristide gangs went on a rampage of killing and looting during the revolt that shoved Aristide from power.
“If you ask me whether we accomplished the mission, the answer is yes, but given the choice, everyone would volunteer to stay,” Coleman said. “Haiti has been beaten up a whole lot.”