Haiti police run amok as American troops look on

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The Independent Online
BLEEDING from the head and holding his leg, Emmanuel Saintjuste thought he would be safe after he tumbled on to the back of a US army Humvee vehicle. But a pot-bellied Haitian policeman leaned between two amazed American soldiers riding shotgun at the back and hit him again on the skull with a steel crowbar.

The young Haitian was among dozens injured by rampaging policemen yesterday, after supporters of the exiled President Jean-Bertrand Aristide danced through the streets alongside the first US patrol. One young man was battered to death.

We don't know what happened to Emmanuel. He pleaded with the US soldiers to let him stay, saying the policemen would kill him. But the apologetic men from the First Brigade of the 10th Mountain Division said they could not take him inside their destination - Port-au-Prince airport - and he hobbled away half-conscious.

The unprovoked violence by police, under the orders of Lt-Col Joseph Michel Francois, showed the volatility of the Haitian situation in the interim before the planned return of Fr Aristide. It also showed the delicate position of the US forces and how it might become increasingly difficult for them not to get sucked into civil disturbances.

It started off as a spontaneous pro- Aristide demonstration outside Port- au-Prince harbour, where most of the US forces are based. The convoy of Humvees and empty lorries drove out with men, women and children running in front, beside and behind. They laughed, danced, shouted 'Hallelujah]' waved palm branches and cheered passing US helicopters.

The convoy edged on at walking pace. Its young soldiers smiled and relaxed. The crowd chanted 'Aristide]'. The driver of a passing petrol tanker honked his horn, people leapt from a multi-coloured tap-tap taxi with 'Christ revient' (Christ is returning) painted on the front.

After half an hour of unmitigated joy, the police came out of nowhere. I looked back to see the demonstrators scatter, many tumbling into stinking open sewers, as running policemen in blue shirts and combat helmets swung wildly with crowbars.

They beat many to the ground as the US soldiers watched in amazement. Then there was a burst of rifle shots and the panic got worse. 'Go, go, go,' shouted Sergeant Daniel Prunier from the back of the lead Humvee. That was when Emmanuel tumbled on to the back.

Another burst of gunfire, the American vehicles picked up speed and I leapt into the back of the Humvee on top of Emmanuel. The police got into pick-up trucks and drove alongside, shouting insults at the injured Haitian and swiping out at others.

'For a minute there it was a little tense,' said Sgt Prunier, keeping his M- 16 rifle trained on passing buildings. 'I wasn't sure who was doing the shooting. This is real frustrating. But if we did something now, it might make matters worse.'

The night before, after the first pro- Aristide demonstration since the 1991 coup, police also waded in with crowbars. Aristide supporters thought the US troops were there to protect them. Col Francois' police showed them who is still boss.

US troops stand by, page 16

Letters, page 17

(Photograph omitted)