Originally: UN troops clash with ex-soldiers in Haiti; peacekeeper among 3 killed
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (AP) – UN troops tried to remove a group of armed ex-soldiers from a police station in southern Haiti on Sunday, touching off a gun-battle that left at least three dead, including one peacekeeper, officials said.
The clash marks the first major confrontation between the 7,400-strong UN force trying to stabilize Haiti and former members of the country’s disbanded army, who helped oust former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide in a 1991 coup and again in an armed rebellion a year ago.
UN troops entered the town of Petit-Goave, a stronghold of former soldiers about 70 kilometers west of Port-au-Prince, in a pre-dawn operation to remove ex-soldiers from the police station when shots rang out, UN civilian police spokesman Jean-Francios Vezina said.
One UN soldier died in the firefight, while two others were injured, including one critically, Vezina said. He couldn’t confirm the nationality of the UN troops, but another UN official who spoke on condition of anonymity said they were from Sri Lanka.
At least two ex-soldiers were killed and seven others wounded, Vezina said.
UN troops detained 20 people after the gun-battle, including ex-soldiers and civilians, Vezina said. “We are now in control of the police station,” he said.
UN military officials and Haitian police weren’t immediately available to confirm the report.
The ex-soldiers, many well into their 50s with fading uniforms and aging rifles, continue to control much of Haiti’s countryside and a handful of provincial towns, bucking calls by the interim government and the UN force to disarm.
So far, the ex-military have won in past confrontations.
When Sri Lankan troops and Haitian police tried to force the ex-soldiers from the former police headquarters that they took by force in December, a mob of supporters began throwing rocks at the peacekeepers, who retreated.
In another standoff that month, a different group of ex-soldiers took over Aristide’s looted estate on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince. They only withdrew from the property after the interim government agreed to give them back pay for the 10 years they were disbanded.
In a February interview with The Associated Press, the commander of the ex-soldiers in Petit-Goave hinted at a confrontation should UN troops attempt to intervene. “If anybody tries to remove us from this base, we’ll know what to do,” former Sgt. Michel Alophene said.
Aristide disbanded the army in 1995, four years after he was ousted. The 1990-1994-coup regime is blamed for the killing, maiming and torture of thousands of Aristide supporters, and today’s former soldiers include convicted murderers.
Little has been done to disarm the ex-soldiers, though UN officials say they’ll soon launch a major disarmament plan.
The government plans to pay $29 million US to about 6,000 former soldiers. There are no official estimates on how many have took up arms last year, but estimates range from several hundred to 2,000.