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28428: (news) Chamberlain: Preval faces big challenge in Haiti's largest slum
From: Greg Chamberlain <GregChamberlain@compuserve.com>
By Tom Brown
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti, May 21 (Reuters) - The volatile situation in
Haiti's largest and most violent slum could prove a major obstacle for
President Rene Preval as he seeks to stabilize his country and put it on a
Preval appealed for peace in the troubled Caribbean nation last Sunday
as he was inaugurated as Haiti's first democratically elected leader since
Jean-Bertrand Aristide fled an armed revolt more than two years ago.
But leaders of gangs in Cite Soleil, a shantytown home to at least
300,000 people and a potent symbol of misery in the poorest country in the
Americas, say there can be no peace without justice and a speedy response
to their demands.
No ultimatums have been set, according to several gang leaders who
voiced cautious support for Preval when interviewed by Reuters last week.
But chief among their demands is one for the return of Aristide, who
went into exile in February 2004 in the face of a bloody rebellion and
pressure from Washington and Paris to step down.
Preval, a one-time Aristide ally and previously president of Haiti
from 1996 to 2001, has said there is nothing to prevent Aristide's return.
He stopped short of saying he would welcome back a figure still seen as a
champion of the poor but reviled by Haiti's tiny, wealthy elite.
"Aristide must come back," said Augudson Nicolas, a slight man known
as General Toutou who controls one of the gangs in the teeming warren of
shacks, narrow alleys and open sewers.
The United States has warned Preval not to allow Aristide back --
accusing him of despotism and reliance on armed thugs to silence opponents.
But that could reignite violence in Cite Soleil, which has seen an orgy of
bloodshed over the past two years.
A U.N. peacekeeping mission, now numbering about 9,000 troops and
civilian police, has been in Haiti since June 2004 to support a U.S.-backed
Preval has asked the mission, widely despised in the slums, to stay on
for now but that too could backfire on him.
Cite Soleil's gang leaders are demanding the withdrawal of the U.N.
troops, saying they have killed women, children and other defenseless
people since rolling into the shantytown in menacing armored personnel
Resentment runs high among many residents, whose cinder-block homes
are pockmarked by bullets fired during pitched battles between U.N. troops
and Cite Soleil's gangs.
Georges Masillon, 54, standing outside a sand-bagged former
supermarket where blue-helmeted U.N. troops are bivouacked, bemoaned the
fate of his 29-year-old son on crutches nearby.
The young man was shot by Jordanian peacekeepers while trying to run
for safety on Feb. 1 when gunfire erupted for no apparent reason, Masillon
said. One bullet severed his Achilles tendon while the exit wound from
another damaged his genitals.
"MINUSTAH has done nothing to help us, they have only hurt us," said
Masillon, using the French-language acronym of the U.N. mission
"Cite Soleil gave Preval power," said Sonson Pierre, a self-proclaimed
soldier in what he described as the army of Commander Evans, one of Cite
Soleil's main gang leader.
"If Preval doesn't respond to us it's going get hot," he said,
referring to the demands for a U.N. withdrawal.
Several of Haiti's gangs had offered to lay down their weapons once
Preval took office but none has disarmed so far.
Evans' followers, many barefoot and brandishing automatic assault
rifles, danced through mud-choked alleys and fired off gunshots into the
air last Thursday in celebration after briefly taking a Brazilian army
colonel hostage. Evans, who figures prominently on Haiti's most wanted
list, said there had been a botched U.N. attempt at his arrest.
"All we want for this country is peace," he said. "I don't think the
whites (U.N. peacekeepers) want peace. They should leave."
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