After gun law, peace is in the air at Tropic FM

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The Independent Online
LIEUTENANT Bertrand wants Tropic FM, Haiti's most popular radio station, to make a correction. He would like them to make it clear that he is not the Lieutenant Bertrand arrested last week for throwing a grenade into a demonstration backing President Jean- Bertrand Aristide.

'It is a sign that it is getting safer to be a journalist,' says Tropic reporter, Jeancois Joseph. He said that when Lieutenant Bertrand arrived at the radio station he was carrying a large gun, but agreed to leave it outside. 'A few weeks ago he simply would have threatened us with violence to get what he wanted. It shows the army is getting weaker.'

On the eve of the return to civilian rule, people in Port-au-Prince are becoming less frightened, but they are still nervous. They discuss rumours that two coffins filled with guns were found in the main cemetery. On the mountain road leading to the wealthy suburb of Petionville, local people yesterday stopped a US military patrol, demanding that the patrol investigate a box they thought was filled with grenades - it wasn't.

The US forces are in the bizarre position of pretending they are here to assist the blue-shirted Haitian police while recognising that they are the main threat to security. The solution is for the 1,200 police in the capital to be accompanied on patrol by 1,000 international monitors commanded by Raymond Kelly, a former New York police commissioner.

Protected by bullet-proof vests, the first of the monitors from the Argentine police were yesterday helping their Haitian counterparts in a small post opposite the the docks. Only in Haiti could the rich traditions of Argentine policing be considered an improvement on existing practice. Haitians watched in amazement as the Argentines tutored the local officers.

There is still an undercurrent of fear. A cloud of tear gas scattered the coughing and spluttering crowd. US soldiers in a post close to the gates guarding the docks had released a tear gas grenade at some boys who were jumping on to trucks carrying food supplies to try to steal food. After an initial panic, people began to laugh, they sneezed and wiped their eyes in their relief that nothing more lethal was happening.

Lieutenant-General Hugh Shelton, the overall American commander, has made sure that US Sheridan tanks, with their stubby guns and accompanying infantry, are highly visible. But they do not go into much of the city because the rutted tracks in the slums are too narrow for their vehicles. There are frequent arms searches, but on one day this week these produced just one pistol, one rifle and one machete. Mr Kelly's monitors clearly do cramp the style of the Haitian police.

But in the long term, the plan is to train an entirely new force of 4,000 men at an academy being established by the US. Members from the old police force will be allowed to apply, but will otherwise be phased out over 18 months.

Mr Joseph's belief that security is fast improving is probably correct. Last year the station received so many death threats that its manager was reduced to writing to the Port-au-Prince police chief, Lieutenant-Colonel Michel Francois, politely asking his advice about how to cope with it.

Given that he is believed to have controlled - until his flight to the Dominican Republic this week - the capital's death squads, there is much Colonel Francois could have told Tropic, but he simply wrote back suggesting they hire private security guards.

(Photograph omitted)