Originally: Disarmament deadline passes without progress in Haiti while rebels refuse to give up arms and key outposts
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti_ A disarmament deadline passed without progress Wednesday as Haiti?s U.S.-backed government faced a looming power struggle with rebels unwilling to disarm since they ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in February.
Haitian police and government officials set the deadline in July for the rebels, former soldiers and Aristide supporters to disarm by Sept. 15 without facing arrest.
The deadline, however, disintegrated with a loosely worded accorded signed over the weekend that called for more dialogue. The rebels, which include former soldiers who overthrew Aristide the first time in a 1991 coup, have grown more vocal in their demands.
The former soldiers say Aristide illegally disbanded them and they are now owed backpay and jobs. The former soldiers say they will not disarm until their demands are met _ a point of contention with Haiti?s struggling police who are trying to maintain a fragile peace.
“We cannot hand over our arms, and I think the government understands that,” said Remissainthe Ravix, a former colonel in Haitian army who is commanding the rebels, some of whom have taken over a police station in the southern city of Petit Goave.
There was no explanation from the Haitian government on the apparent backtrack. The deadline set in a letter dated July 8 was signed by interim Prime Minister Gerard Latortue.
“Sept. 15 is not an end date,” said Jean-Robert Saget, a spokesman for Latortue. “The Prime Minister has found an amicable solution with 1/8the ex-military 3/8, which is negotiations.”
Bands of rebels and former soldiers launched a three week rebellion in February that ended with the ouster of Aristide on Feb. 29 and the arrival of a U.S.-led peacekeeping force, which has since been replaced by a 3,000-member U.N. force led by Brazilian troops.
When the U.S.-led force wrapped up its mission in June, it had collected fewer than 200 weapons. It was not immediately clear how many weapons U.N. troops had confiscated since.
Despite the international presence, the rebels and former soldiers have refused to abandon police stations across the country, saying that until the government reinstates the military and the police hire more recruits, they are needed to stabilize Haiti.
The stance has caused friction with the police who can?t disarm the groups unless the government supports a disarmament plan, said Bruce Myrtil, a police spokesman.
The police force was weakened when recruits, loyal to Aristide who has since gone into temporary exile in South Africa, fled their posts during the rebellion. Several police officers were killed in the rebellion, allegedly by rebels.
On Sunday, after the accord calling for dialogue before disarmament was signed, police shot at the Petit Goave station being occupied by rebels and former soldiers. Two people were injured. Police also shot at rebels occupying a station in Port-au-Prince last week.
While the government has given the rebels and former soldiers more time to disarm, raids to disarm gangs loyal to Aristide have continued in strongholds such as Cite Soleil, a seaside slum in the capital of Port-au-Prince where nearly 100 people were detained last week.
Human rights groups have charged that the government is targeting Aristide supporters but allowing the rebels and former soldiers to operate with impunity.
Latortue has already been criticized for forming alliances with rebels accused of human rights abuses, including Louis-Jodel Chamblain, a former paramilitary leader who was recently acquitted of murdering an Aristide supporter after a 14-hour trial last month.
“There cannot be democratic elections in this country without disarmament, and the government shows no will to disarm armed groups,” said Viles Alizar, program director for the National Coalition of Haitian Rights.
Latortue has promised legislative and presidential elections in 2005.
In June, U.S. Ambassador James Foley told The Associated Press in an interview that disarmament would be one of the biggest challenges for the interim government and that continued rebel presence in some parts of the country was worrying.
The U.S. Embassy declined to comment on the passing of the deadline Wednesday.
“We feel that the international community and the interim Haitian government have really not done enough to deal with the problem (of disarmament),” said Eric Olson, a spokesman for the London-based Amnesty International. “Without disarming all groups and dealing with the problem of impunity it will be very difficult for Haiti to reestablish a rule of law in the country.”