By PAISLEY DODDS, Associated Press Writers
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti – U.S. Marines killed at least two gunmen who opened fire near the home of the outgoing Haitian prime minister, a spokesman said Wednesday, while loyalists of former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide said they will not recognize the new prime minister.
That new premier, Gerard Latortue, was scheduled to arrive later Wednesday from Miami and begin the arduous task of trying to build a government and set up elections.
The latest fatalities, which occurred late Tuesday in an Aristide stronghold, demonstrate the difficulties facing peacekeepers as they try to disarm rebel groups and Aristide supporters. Since Sunday, Marines have killed at least four Haitians, including a driver who sped up toward a checkpoint and a gunman firing on an anti-Aristide demonstration.
U.S. Marines said previously they would begin helping Haitian police collect weapons Wednesday, but there was little evidence of disarmament on Port-au-Prince’s streets.
Instead, Marines said they spent much of Tuesday evening exchanging gunfire with militants in Aristide strongholds.
Staff Sgt. Timothy Edwards said Marines were patrolling near the private residence of outgoing Prime Minister Yvon Neptune when they were shot at. The Marines fired back and killed at least two gunmen, he said. No peacekeepers were wounded.
The gunmen’s bodies were not recovered but that is common. Peacekeepers must call health authorities to collect the remains, and family members sometimes take bodies away before they can be reported.
In a separate incident, several people got out of a car late Tuesday and opened fire on Marines, who shot back, U.S. Maj. Richard Crusan said. Three people then fled on foot, he said.
A body was still on the sidewalk early Wednesday near where the shooting occurred. Crusan and others refused to say whether the victim, who had been shot in the head, was involved.
“We found him this morning,” resident Savoy Toussaint said of the body. “He doesn’t have a face so we can’t identify him.”
Many Aristide supporters were angry over Tuesday’s decision by the U.S.-backed advisory council to name Latortue prime minister.
“He doesn’t understand the reality of the country,” said Jacques Pierre, 49. “He doesn’t understand our hunger.”
The 69-year-old former U.N. official and foreign minister had criticized Aristide, saying his police were politicized and courts corrupt.
It was unclear whether Neptune, who was appointed by Aristide, would remain in Haiti.
Latortue said his first priority is to unite the nation, a difficult task as both rebels and Aristide militants threaten more conflict if improvements do not happen quickly enough for them.
Anne-Marie Issa, a member of the council that picked Latortue, said the new leader likely will choose retired army chief-of-staff Gen. Herard Abraham as minister of security or defense and businessman Smarck Michel as minister of planning. Both were finalists for the prime minister post.
“It’s for sure the priority is security,” she said.
Latortue told the council he would either restructure the police or reconstitute the army to improve security, Issa said.
Haiti’s army, which ousted Aristide months after he became the nation’s first freely elected president in 1990, was disbanded in 1995 after a U.S. invasion restored Aristide to power.
Aristide, a slum priest elected on promises to champion the poor, eventually lost support as Haitians accused his government of corruption and attacking political opponents.
Issa said the seven-member council will continue advising Latortue.
“We are the eyes of the people until they have a parliament,” she said.
Latortue and interim President Boniface Alexandre will begin organizing elections and building a new government for Haiti. Under Aristide, the prime minister’s position was largely ceremonial.
Meanwhile, in Central African Republic, Aristide maintained he is the legitimate leader of Haiti and that U.S. officials forced him from office. On Wednesday, his lawyers said they were preparing cases accusing authorities in the United States and France of abducting him and forcing him into exile.
American lawyer Brian Concannon said in Paris that Aristide “was not free to leave the plane” provided by the United States for his Feb. 29 departure from Haiti.
U.S. officials have denied forcing Aristide from office, saying they helped him escape with his life as rebels advanced on Haiti’s capital.
Aristide has been staying in the presidential palace in Central African Republic since March 1. On Wednesday, a South African delegation visited him there to discuss his long-term asylum plans, Foreign Minister Charles Wenezoui told The Associated Press.
After the visit, South Africa Deputy Foreign Affairs Minister Aziz Pahad said the African Union — an organization representing 53 African nations — should arrange Aristide’s long-term asylum plans.
After Aristide’s ouster, South Africa was the country most often mentioned as his destination, a U.S. official said.
Associated Press reporters Ian James and Peter Prengaman in Port-au-Prince contributed to this story.