Violence down as Haiti election nears

By JASON MOTLAGH, UPI Correspondent  |  Feb. 3, 2006 at 8:36 AM
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PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti, Feb. 2 (UPI) -- A recent surge in shootings and kidnappings has threatened to spoil Haiti's long-awaited presidential vote, but violence has come to a near standstill of late and elections slated for next Tuesday will proceed, according to U.N. and humanitarian officials.

"Everybody thinks that the conditions are there, logistically, in terms of general organization -- even security has improved in the month of January," said Damian Onses-Cardenas, spokesman for the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.

"It's not going to be like Switzerland," Onses-Cardenas told United Press International in an interview. "But the strategy of using violence against the elections is no longer."

The presidential ballot, first scheduled for November, has been postponed repeatedly due to logistical problems, mismanagement and instability in gang-controlled parts of the capital, Port-au-Prince.

Thirty-five candidates are running for president, among them Rene Preval, a protégé of former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who leads his nearest rival by 20 percentage points in the polls. Preval served as president from 1996 to 2001.

Political and gang violence has plagued residents of Cite Soleil -- a sprawling shantytown built considered one of the worst in the Americas -- since the Feb. 29, 2004, ousting of Aristide.

The capital's largest slum is the stronghold of some 75 armed gangs, a number of which allegedly remain loyal to the exiled leader.

Human rights groups say more than 2,000 people have been killed over the last two years despite the presence of 6,000 Haitian police officers and 9,000 U.N. peacekeepers, the largest security force the country has ever had.

"Gunfire has been the soundtrack of Cite Soleil since I arrived," said Loris De Filippi, head of mission for Medecins Sans Frontiers, which operates two hospitals set deep in the slum's tin-and-cinderblock warrens where at least 200,000 people dwell in a grinding cross fire between rival gangs, police and U.N. troops.

De Filippi said more than 50 percent of his patients have been women, children and the elderly. He said that in the run up to elections, MSF's emergency care unit has seen a "huge" increase in gunshot victims: 34 wounded in November, 80 in December, and 103 last month -- 90 percent of them in the first three weeks alone.

However, De Filippi noted that an unforeseen calm has taken effect since Jan. 20 across an area that has been a perpetual "war zone" since his arrival last June.

"Now suddenly it's different, quieter," the Italian doctor said, searching for an explanation. "The situation has calmed down ... and it's difficult to say why."

The U.N. mission, known by the acronym MINUSTAH, has curtailed large-scale offensives into Cite Soleil after predictions of "collateral damage" outraged slum dwellers and human rights groups who say troops shot unarmed civilians on many occasions.

Such allegations have resulted in greater support for gangs perceived as defending the interests of the poor -- and harsher reprisals.

Two Jordanians were gunned down at a Cite Soleil checkpoint last month, bringing the total number of peacekeepers killed to nine since the mission began in June 2004.

Some observers say influential community leaders from Aristide's Lavalas party and Preval's Lespwa party have asked gang leaders to uphold a cease-fire in the run up to elections so Cite Soleil inhabitants may cast their votes without fear.

Haitian election officials decided last week not to place polling stations inside the slum, arguing that voters would likely be intimidated by gangs.

Hundreds of residents took to the dusty streets of Cite Soleil Wednesday to protest the move on grounds that trouble was more likely to come from enemies of Preval. U.N. officials have been assured that people will have to travel no more than 20 minutes on foot to reach voting stations, and gang leaders have said they would even accompany voters to the polls.

The U.N. envoy to Haiti, Juan Gabriel Valdes, has pledged to neutralize any groups poised to stir violence as elections near, though criminal activity in the capital has not been the exclusive domain of slum gangs.

Police officers and members of Haiti's wealthy elite with political and financial incentives to disrupt the elections have allegedly been involved in kidnapping for ransom schemes.

"Violence in Haiti does not only come from Cite Soleil," said Onses Cardenas, reiterating a statement made by Haitian Police Chief Mario Andresol that if his ranks were investigated for corruption, he would probably lose 30 to 40 percent of his men.

More than 1,900 people have been kidnapped in Port-au-Prince in the last 10 months, according to police sources. Many abductees are said to be held hostage in bowels of Cite Soleil beyond the reach of the law.

"The U.N. definitely needs to do more, to become a more visible presence to give voters confidence," said Max Mathurin, president of Haiti's Electoral Council. "They must be able to guarantee security and they have not done so."

U.N. officials say they have reinforced police checkpoints around Cite Soleil and increased patrols along its periphery to ensure voter security at the polls.

There will be a "reaction" if peacekeepers are attacked, but there are "no planned operations of occupation of Cite Soleil as such," according to Onses-Cardenas.

Haiti's unelected interim authorities said this week schools and government offices will be closed next week to better secure the vote, noting a 1987 Election Day massacre by armed thugs at a school in which 34 people were killed and ballots cancelled.

Asked whether he believes the present calm will hold up until elections, Jean-Phillipe Petion was uncertain.

"God only knows, and I am not God," said the 20-year-old former sociology student who had to quit school to support himself. "But then again, this is Haiti, and violence is always near."

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