By PAISLEY DODDS, Associated Press Writer
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti – U.N. peacekeepers have established their command post in Haiti, preparing to take over from an American-led force later this month despite uncertainty over troop numbers, funding and how to help thousands of flood victims.
In a ceremony Tuesday, Brazil’s Army Gen. Augusto Heleno Ribeiro Pereira took control of the 8,000-strong U.N. force at Haiti’s police academy. Although only a fraction of troops have arrived, most are expected to come by the end of June, when U.S. troops leave and U.N. troops start performing the duties of the current 3,600-member multinational task force.
Their initial mission will be to provide security, which includes disarming rebels who helped oust President Jean-Bertrand Aristide on Feb. 29, as well as 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 so far.
“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.
Less than a dozen of the 1,900 U.S. troops will stay on with the U.N. force. Others in the multinational force it is replacing will have staggered departure dates. France will leave later this month, Canada will stay on until September and Chile will participate until the U.N. mandate expires.
“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 “Rebels are still in control of a pretty significant chunk of real estate.”
The symbolic handover comes as the country of 8 million copes with deadly floods that killed more than 1,700 in Haiti and the Dominican Republic. It was unclear whether the newly arrived troops would be involved in emergency operations to flooded areas.
Whether the force will reach full strength is unclear. Brazil, Chile and Argentina have pledged up to 2,500 troops. Other countries, including Nepal and Rwanda, have promised 750 troops each.
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.
Several members of Aristide’s government and inner circle have been arrested on drug trafficking charges, including former Sen. Fourel Celestin, who surrended on Tuesday at the U.S. Embassy in Port-au-Prince. He was quickly flown to Miami, where he will likely be arraigned, according to a U.S. official who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Barring more help from U.S. troops, Latortue said he hoped the U.N. force would stay until Feb. 7, 2006, when an elected president should be installed.
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 (news – web sites) 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 yet,” 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 that 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.”