PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (Dec. 14) AP - Hundreds of U.N. peacekeeping troops stormed a stronghold of ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide's supporters on Tuesday, seeking control of areas that have become flashpoints of violence. At least four people were killed.
Shootouts broke out between residents and U.N. troops who rolled into Cite Soleil before dawn, said Damian Onses-Cardona, a spokesman for the U.N. peacekeeping mission.
At least six people were shot in the neighborhood Tuesday, including a 26-year-old woman, a 16-year-old boy and a 13-year-old boy, all injured during gunfire exchanges between peacekeepers and residents.
Violence has plagued Cite Soleil, a gritty slum outside Port-au-Prince, since September, when Aristide loyalists increased protests to demand his return from exile in South Africa.
Since Aristide fled the country Feb. 29 amid a three-week rebellion, Haiti's U.S.-backed government has struggled to stem violence committed by gangsters, pro-Aristide gangs, anti-Aristide gangs and former soldiers who led the revolt. The ex-soldiers have grown frustrated with the government, which has yet to formally reinstate the army.
As U.N. troops patrolled Cite Soleil on Tuesday, gunmen tore through a commercial area of the capital, shooting into the air, burning roadside stands and looting.
By Tuesday afternoon, at least 19 people had been shot, according to hospital officials and residents. It was unclear where most of the shootings occurred. At least four had been killed, including a two-year-old who was found shot dead in Cite Soleil before the U.N. operation, Onses-Cardona said.
U.N. officials said they planned to patrol the area for at least two months until they can transfer operations to Haiti's beleaguered police. Many officers, who had been loyal to Aristide, fled their posts during the rebellion out of fear of reprisals. Nearly 20 police officers have been slain since Sept. 30, allegedly by Aristide supporters.
The troops planned to dismantle roadblocks erected by residents and gain control of two police stations in Cite Soleil.
Onses-Cardona said Tuesday's operation involved hundreds of Brazilian, Jordanian and Sri Lankan troops, flanked by Chinese police and Chilean helicopters. He said most of the troops left after several hours but similar pushes would occur daily.
The show of force came a week after U.N. mission chief Juan Gabriel Valdes promised a crackdown on armed groups, saying troops would disarm gangsters for the first time since U.N. peacekeepers arrived to stabilize the island nation.
"This operation is definitely not an easy thing or a quick thing," he said.
Both the 7,000-member peacekeeping force and the U.S.-backed interim government have done little to disarm Aristide loyalists or rebels who still control much of the countryside, patrolling towns and undermining police authority.
The rebels include members of the army Aristide disbanded in 1994. The former soldiers have refused to lay down their weapons, and want backpay for 10 years.
Interim Prime Minister Gerard Latortue has accused Aristide of orchestrating the violence from exile - a charge Aristide has denied. Aristide claims the United Stated forced him to leave the country.