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Posted Wednesday, February 28, 2007
Extremely contagious, heavily armed gangs fleeing Haiti capital city principal slum; establish new bases in rural areas
By Reuters

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti, Feb. 28, 2007 (Reuters) -- Heavily armed gangs, fleeing Haiti's dangerous slums in the face of U.N. peacekeeper raids, have established new bases in provincial areas, creating panic in rural populations, officials and witnesses say.

A gang leader known as Belony, who was recently chased from the capital's slum of Cite Soleil by U.N. peacekeepers, now leads a group of about 100 gunmen near the northern town of Saint-Michel, according to Patrick Joseph, a lawmaker representing the area.

"The government and security forces should act now to avoid a deterioration of the security situation there," Joseph said, adding that the gang members were making no effort to hide.

"They take refuge near a mountain, walking in the dozens with assault weapons in their hands, and the population of Saint-Michel is frightened to death."

The U.N. peacekeepers, who were sent to Haiti shortly after then-President Jean-Bertrand Aristide was ousted in an armed rebellion three years ago, have stepped up operations against slum gangs in recent weeks.

Hundreds of soldiers raided the capital's giant Cite Soleil slum in early February, spurring a gunbattle in which thousands of rounds were fired, at least one person was killed and several were wounded.

The U.N. Security Council voted two weeks ago to extend the peacekeeping mission for eight months and asked troops to step up operations against gangs. The U.N. force stands at 6,800 troops and nearly 2,000 police.

Residents of Saint-Michel told local Radio Metropole that they feared attacks by the armed gangs.

"We wonder what the Haitian police and U.N. troops are doing. We call on them to come and help us," a resident who was not identified told the radio station. "They [gangs] are walking with their heavy weapons, they seize cattle, they have been panicking the population."

Inspector Wismane Desmangles, a spokesman for the Haitian police in the area, said measures were being considered to counter the gangs, but he provided no further detail.

Reports from other provincial cities, including the southern city of Les Cayes, also indicate armed gangs hunted down by U.N. soldiers in the capital have tried to set up shop in rural areas where police or U.N. presence is absent or very weak.

Gang members have attempted to flee across the border to the neighboring Dominican Republic as well.

The gangs, some of which remain loyal to Aristide, have been running many of Port-au-Prince's poorest neighborhoods for years.

U.N. officials said they have arrested about three dozen gang members in the raid three weeks ago and have confiscated a few weapons and some ammunition in Cite Soleil, where three notorious gang leaders, Belony, Evans and Amaral Duclona, were forced to flee.

Critics blamed U.N. troops for failing to capture the gang leaders.

"U.N. operations are a failure because they never lead to the arrest of gang leaders or the confiscation of their weapons," former army Col. Himler Rebu said.

"When you chase them away and leave them with their weapons and the potential to take the violence elsewhere, you don't solve anything."

However, U.N. military officials said the primary goal of the security operations was not to capture gang leaders, but to take control of areas held by gangs and to give residents a sense of security.

Copyright 2007 Reuters.

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