Originally: Gun battle erupts as Powell visits Haiti

PORT-AU-PRINCE (AFP) An intense gun battle broke out just outside Haiti’s presidential palace, injuring four people as US Secretary of State Colin Powell met with local officials, hospital sources said.

Shots could be heard by an AFP journalist inside the sprawling white palace where Powell was meeting with interim prime minister Gerard Latortue.

Supporters of former president Jean Bertrand Aristide were believed to have opened fire from a passing car, and UN forces fired back, palace sources said.

The gunfire was heard from inside the palace just after 1600 GMT. Shortly thereafter, several UN tanks rumbled in to patrol the road in front of the palace.

Powell arrived at the palace grounds by helicopter at 1430 GMT, and had been expected to spend most of the day there.

The top US diplomat also was due to meet with interim president Boniface Alexandre and members of the private sector.

Among the four injured were two students and a doctor, hospital sources said.

This marked Powell’s second visit to Haiti in eight months and comes as the government and UN forces grapple with violence partly blamed on Aristide’s supporters.

Powell’s brief visit was aimed at showing support for Haiti’s interim government and the UN stabilization force deployed in the wake of Aristide’s departure in February amid an armed uprising against his rule. It also sought to highlight efforts to quell this type of violence.

The UN Security Council on Monday extended the mandate of the UN Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) until June 1, 2005 as it tries to restore security ahead of elections set for next year. As of mid-November, 4,489 of 6,700 planned troops and 1,228 of 1,622 projected civilian police officers had been deployed to Haiti.

Haiti is also recovering from devastating floods in September caused by Tropical Storm Jeanne that killed at least 1,554 people and left 904 missing.

Aristide now lives in exile in South Africa, from where he is suspected of maintaining ties to his partisans in Haiti and, in Washington’s view, fomenting unrest. He maintains he was forced out by Washington and Paris, a rallying point for his supporters.

In October, the United States accused Aristide supporters of mounting a “systematic campaign” to destabilize the interim government and urged him to speak out against violence, which has included killings, beheadings, looting and the shootings of at least two peacekeepers.

“Generally, our view is that he’s played a negative role since he departed Haiti in March and that it’s his supporters and political party that are instigating much of the violence,” State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said on October 12.