PORT-AU-PRINCE, March 24 (AP) — They hide arsenals of weapons in

coffins, show a fierce devotion to their cause and can melt into the

population at the first crack of a rifle.

  After months of inaction, U.N. officials have vowed to confront violent

Haitian gangs that refuse to disarm, but some say success won’t be easy for

a relatively small peacekeeping force unaccustomed to gritty urban


  The U.N. peacekeepers in recent days suffered their first two deaths in

an offensive against former members of Haiti’s disbanded army, and experts

say going after the politically oriented, better-armed street gangs will be

even more difficult.

  The stakes are high: U.N. and interim Haitian officials fear continued

violence could disrupt fall elections needed to fill a power vacuum left

after former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s ouster last year. More than

400 people have died in clashes since September.

  The shaky security climate was underscored late Tuesday when gunmen

opened fire outside the house of the Haiti’s justice minister, killing a

police officer guarding the property. Police have no suspects or motive in

the attack.

  Past efforts to disarm the gangs failed, most notably a decade ago when

U.S. forces restored Aristide to power after he was deposed in a 1991 coup,

and again when U.N. troops took over the peacekeeping mission in 1995.

  “(Disarmament) is an even tougher situation today than it was in the

mid-1990s,” said Peter Gantz, a peacekeeping expert with the

Washington-based Refugees International, noting that the U.N. force has

less funds and troops than during its earlier Haiti mission.

  A priority for the 7,400-strong Brazilian-led force will be establishing

a presence in rough pro-Aristide slums. “There’s no rule of law there,”

Gantz said.

  The difficulty of disarming gangs, many of which received money and

perhaps weapons under Aristide, stands in contrast to Haiti’s other

security problem — bands of aging, loosely organized ex-soldiers armed

with rusty rifles who helped overthrow Aristide in February 2004.

  In the first major offensives of its 10-month-old mission, U.N. troops

raided two rural towns over the weekend and easily removed groups of

ex-soldiers who had occupied the areas for months. Two peacekeepers and two

ex-soldiers died in clashes.

  Amid charges of timidity toward armed groups, U.N. envoy to Haiti Juan

Gabriel Valdes said Tuesday that peacekeepers were stepping up action to

secure elections in October and November. He urged gangs to accept a U.N.

offer to disarm and re-enter society.

  But matching recent success against ex-soldiers with gangs will be tough

  Many remain loyal to Aristide and say they’d give their lives to ensure

his return from exile in South Africa. If police or soldiers enter the

area, gang members have clever ways to conceal their arms — including

stashing them inside coffins that are buried and later dug up — before

disappearing down trash-strewn side streets.

  Damian Onses-Cardona, a U.N. spokesman in Haiti, said peacekeepers can

be effective in other ways beyond direct confrontation.

  “It’s not a question of going into an area and only” fighting gangs,

Onses-Cardona said. “You can capture gang leaders and make that have an

effect on everyone else.”

  Pro-Aristide gangs have their roots in the 1991 coup, when paramilitary

death squads sprayed Aristide’s slum strongholds with gunfire. Some of

today’s Aristide loyalists were orphaned by the killings, which eased in

1994 when U.S. troops restored Aristide.

  Many say the fighting will continue unless the angry, young slum

dwellers have a better alternative to picking up a gun.

  “What these people need are jobs, but there won’t be any jobs until

there’s stability, and there won’t be stability until there’s a political

process safe and open to everyone,” Gantz said.