By Joseph Guyler Delva
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (Reuters) – U.N. troops took over peacekeeping authority in Haiti on Tuesday as aid workers in the Caribbean nation struggled with the loss of military helicopters that had delivered supplies to victims of deadly flooding.
U.S. forces formally handed over authority to U.N. troops in a ceremony at the national police academy in the Port-au-Prince suburb of Petionville, beginning a transition expected to be complete by June 20.
Many of the U.N. troops have yet to arrive.
“The stakes are high. This time, let us get it right,” U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan (news – web sites) said in a message read at the ceremony.
A U.S.-led multinational force went to Haiti to restore order in March after an armed revolt killed more than 200 people and forced President Jean-Bertrand Aristide into exile.
It also provided helicopters to deliver food to remote villages flooded last week in the worst natural disaster to hit the impoverished country in years.
The United Nations (news – web sites) last sent peacekeepers to Haiti in 1995, running a 2 1/2-year stabilization mission after U.S. forces restored Aristide to power following a military coup.
Brazil leads the current six-month U.N. mission, providing the core of the 6,700 troops and 1,622 police whose chief goal is to stabilize Haiti ahead of elections expected next year.
“We have to take advantage of their presence to restore security and to bring stability and to create conditions for good elections,” Haiti’s interim Prime Minister Gerard Latortue said at the ceremony.
The Brazilian general in charge of the U.N. forces, Augusto Heleno Ribeiro Pereira, said disarming Haiti’s politically connected gangs would be an important step toward that goal.
“The disarmament is very important for the security of everybody. However, spiritual disarmament is even more important than physical disarmament,” he said,
During the ceremony, a Canadian soldier saluted the Brazilian general and took off his own cap and replaced it with the blue beret of the U.N. peacekeepers. Other foreign soldiers followed suit.
Aid groups have relied on the interim force’s helicopters to deliver emergency food, water and medicine to remote villages cut off when roads were washed away by the floods.
Heavy rains created torrents of mud and debris that swept away homes and buried residents in Haiti and the Dominican Republic, which share the island of Hispaniola.
Haitian and U.N. officials estimated 2,600 people were dead or missing in Haiti. In the Dominican Republic, officials said some 400 people had been killed and 300 were missing, almost all in the town of Jimani near the Haitian border.
The military helicopters delivered more than 125 tonnes of supplies to ravaged areas, but the flights ended on Sunday. Supplies appeared sufficient in the worst-hit areas, said U.S. Marine Lt. Col. Dave Lapan, a spokesman for the interim force.
“If in the future there is an immediate need like the one last week, we will use our helicopters, but not on a routine basis,” Lapan said.
Aid workers said the loss of that lifeline left them unable to ship aid to stricken areas. The U.N. World Food Program is now considering chartering helicopters, at $300,000 a week.
“We have to determine whether we are going to use this money to charter helicopters or to buy more food, more supplies to help the people,” said Guy Gauvreau, the WFP director in Haiti. “We deeply deplore that the multinational force has other priorities … ”
The 1,900 U.S. troops are expected to complete their withdrawal by July.