PORT-AU-PRINCE (AFP) – Blue-helmeted UN peacekeepers will once again begin patrolling impoverished Haiti this month as the world body formally takes over a security and stabilization mission from multinational troops under US command.
The UN is dispatching 6,700 troops and 1,622 civil police officers to Haiti, which has been ravaged by heavy storms in the past week, compounding its citizens’ woes.
The handover ceremony occurred at Haiti’s Police Academy as the multinational stabilization force’s authority was transferred to the United Nations (news – web sites).
Multinational troops were sent to the Caribbean country days after former president Jean Bertrand Aristide fled Haiti for exile on February 29.
“Our work will be very difficult, but we are here to overcome this difficult situation,” Brazilian General Augusto Heleno Ribeiro Pereira, who will command the peacekeepers, told AFP.
A message of support in French from UN Secretary General Kofi Annan (news – web sites) was relayed at the ceremony.
The UN is “ready to act with Haiti and its people to help the country from its current critical situation, and to assure its future viability,” Annan’s message said.
“The task is immense, we count on you, you can count on us,” said interim Haitian Prime Minister Gerard Latortue, in thanking the UN for its support.
Interim Haitian President Boniface Alexandre also attended the handover.
After the ceremony, which also witnessed the hoisting of a UN flag, Chilean troops who had been part of the multinational contingent switched their hats to don blue UN-issue berets.
The UN has yet to decide who will lead its Haitian mission, currently being managed by Adama Guindo.
The UN Security Council had approved the multinational force February 29 to help restore order in the wake of an armed uprising against Aristide’s rule, ahead of deploying its own peacekeepers.
The new UN mission will not be fully operational before the end of June.
“It’s an authority transfer,” explained UN spokesman Toussaint Kongo-Doudou.
The fresh UN peacekeepers, coming from about 30 countries, are due to arrive here in coming days and weeks. Some Brazilian soldiers have already arrived.
They will help replace some 3,300 US and French troops, who will be returning home. Chilean and Canadian troops deployed here are staying on in this country of eight million people under the new UN command.
It’s the second time UN peacekeepers have replaced American soldiers here in recent years. UN soldiers replaced a US force and were deployed here from 1995 to 2000 after Aristide had been returned to power by Washington in 1994.
UN officials say the peacekeepers have a strong mandate for an expected long-term mission. They also point out that peacekeepers have recourse to use force if necessary under their UN rules of engagement.
The peacekeepers face the task of disarming the rebels and militia loyal to Aristide and providing security while a transitional government organizes new elections.
A donors conference is expected to take place in mid-July in Brussels as part of an economic effort aimed at improving conditions in this crushingly poor nation.
“This peace mission will help Haitians take charge of their own affairs,” Kongo-Doudou added.
However, previous international interventions have failed to pull Haiti, the poorest country in the Americas, out of political turmoil.
For the moment, the UN and Haiti’s government are vying to guarantee the survival of thousands of people cut off in the southeast of the country by heavy floods that have killed 1,068 people in Haiti and a further 401 across the border in the Dominican Republic.
The multinational security force stopped helicopter aid flights to the storm-hit region Tuesday, much to the angst of a UN that is calling for urgent relief in the area.
Aristide, who served until 1995, ran again in 2000 and won in elections roundly criticized by international observers. He arrived in South Africa Monday from Jamaica.
His opponents in Haiti had feared that he would remain in the Caribbean and plot a return to the country.