U.N. troops and ex-soldiers from Haiti’s disbanded army fought two gunbattles on Sunday, leaving two peacekeepers and at least two former soldiers dead in the deadliest day for the 10-month-old U.N. mission, officials said.
The Sri Lankan and Nepalese soldiers who died were the first peacekeepers killed in clashes since the U.N. force arrived in June 2004 to try and stabilize the impoverished, volatile nation, officials said.
The Sri Lankan was killed and three other peacekeepers wounded in a raid on a police station occupied by armed ex-soldiers in Petit-Goave, about 45 miles west of Port-au-Prince, U.N. spokesman Toussaint Kongo-Doudou said. Two ex-soldiers died and 10 others were wounded.
The U.N. troops entered Petit-Goave before dawn. Using a loudspeaker, the Brazilian commander of U.N. troops in Haiti, Lt. Gen. Augusto Heleno Ribeiro, tried for 20 minutes to get the former soldiers to surrender peacefully when they opened fire on U.N. troops, Kongo-Doudou said.
“We wanted to resolve this peacefully, but our troops received a hostile response from the insurgents and so they responded with force,” he said.
‘It sounded like a war’
Gerard Nelson, a Petit-Goave resident, was sleeping about a block from the police station when he was awoken by gunfire and ran outside. “There were bullets bouncing off the walls. People on the street were running to get out the way. It sounded like a war,” Nelson said.
Later Sunday, a group of Nepalese soldiers driving to the central town of Hinche exchanged gunfire with another group of former soldiers, U.N. spokesman Damian Onses-Cardona said. The ex-soldiers killed one peacekeeper and stole a vehicle. It wasn’t clear if the ex-soldiers suffered casualties.
The clashes were the first major confrontation between the 7,400-strong 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.
Haiti, the Western Hemisphere’s poorest nation, has been in turmoil for years. A U.S.-led peacekeeping force was deployed after Aristide was forced into exile in February 2004, and this force was replaced by the U.N. peacekeepers in June. But armed rebels and former soldiers still control much of Haiti’s countryside and the peacekeepers have been criticized for failing to curb violence.
U.N. forces hold 35
U.N. forces arrested 35 ex-soldiers after Sunday’s gunbattle at the police station, Kongo-Doudou said.
The 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.
Aristide disbanded the army in 1995, four years after he was ousted. The 1991-1994 coup regime is blamed for the murders, maimings and torture of thousands of Aristide supporters, and today’s former soldiers include convicted murderers.
The government plans to pay $29 million to about 6,000 former soldiers. There are no official estimates on how many took up arms last year, but estimates range from several hundred to 2,000.