By STEVENSON JACOBS, Associated Press Writer

LES CAYES, HaitiMore than a month after President Jean-Bertrand Aristide was ousted and a new government installed, Haitians in this dusty port town of 50,000 are still terrified to venture out on the streets.

Here, as in countless other Haitian towns, the battle for control is still being waged, despite the presence of a 3,500-strong, U.S.-led peacekeeping force.

“The person in charge is the person with the biggest gun,” said a young doctor at Les Cayes’ Immaculate Conception Hospital, which has treated dozens of people wounded in clashes between pro- and anti-Aristide forces. He refused to give his name for safety reasons.

The turmoil underscores the Herculean task ahead of Haiti’s U.S.-backed ? and broke ? interim government as it tries to restore order following an anti-Aristide uprising that left more than 300 dead.

U.S. troops have passed through Les Cayes, on the country’s southeast peninsula, just three times, including once this week, residents said. The peacekeepers ran sweeps and conferred with outgunned police about sending more troops but have yet to do so.

Meanwhile, a band of about 20 civilians and some ex-soldiers from Haiti‘s former army have taken up guarding Les Cayes against attacks by armed gangs loyal to Aristide known as “chimeres.”

Dubbed the Front, the gang patrols Les Cayes’ labyrinthine shantytowns and dispenses justice on the spot. It has executed at least five people accused of stealing, usually sacks of rice or sugar, said police Inspector Joseph Avril.

Police aren’t investigating because they have no resources, Avril said. Most spend their shifts sitting helplessly outside the police station.

“We’re working to get them to disarm, but it takes time,” Avril shrugged.

Jude Silias, a 32-year-old Front member, defended the executions as the only way to maintain order in Les Cayes. Businesses needing protection have donated guns to the group, he said.

“The police are too frightened to go out, so we have to do their jobs for them,” said Silias, wearing an old camouflage ball cap, a soccer jersey and a gold watch. “We’re fighting for our country.”

Aristide fled Haiti on Feb. 29. Three days before his ouster, vandals looted the police station, stealing guns, freeing more than 100 prisoners and forcing most officers to flee, Avril said. Several businesses were ransacked in Les Cayes, some 110 miles west of Port-au-Prince, the capital.

About 20 police returned to the streets over the last two weeks, but they’re poorly armed, have just one vehicle and rarely make arrests because the city jail was all but destroyed.

“The justice system in Les Cayes is sleeping right now,” Avril said in his office, stripped by looters of everything but a desk that was too big to carry out the door. “We’re still timid, but slowly we’re getting back out there.”

Many residents seem to support the Front, which says it’s loosely aligned with rebels who hold sway over northern Haiti. Some citizens say only the sustained presence of foreign peacekeepers will bring security. Plans are under way for a U.N. peacekeeping force to replace the U.S.-led troops.

“This new government must really not care about us or the (U.S.) Marines would be here by now,” said businessman Richard Charles, whose hotel was riddled with gunfire by vandals. “If the Marines don’t come, there will be more trouble.”

Haiti‘s new government is trying to boost the number of police on the streets and disarm the country’s myriad gangs, says Justice Minister Bernard Gousse. Recruitment could take months, he conceded.

A nationwide peacekeepers’ disarmament campaign has barely made headway. The Front, for example, brandishes pistols, machetes and batons as it patrols Les Cayes in old camouflage clothing.

Insecurity has taken its toll. Businesses close early and many don’t venture out after dark. Some streets are barricaded with brittle conch shells.

“It’s like living in a prison for many people,” said Darline Domercant, an aid worker for Terra Les Hommes, a Lauzanne, Switzerland-based nongovernment group cares for malnourished children. “Nobody knows what will happen tomorrow.”

Downtown, Love Constance’s indoor market was destroyed by looters. He wants to press charges against those he believes were responsible.

“I want justice. But in Haiti, those things usually don’t work out,” Constance said.