The already tricky relations between Haiti's government and the United Nations mission to the country came under further strain yesterday, amid claim and counter-claim over a film which purports to show a group of Uruguayan peacekeepers sexually assaulting a young local man.
Haiti's President, Michel Martelly, vigorously condemned the alleged rape, which took place last week and was recorded on a mobile phone.
"The President shares the feelings of all Haitians and guarantees that those who are guilty of, or complicit in, this act will not go unpunished," he declared.
But even as Mr Martelly bombastically decried "an act that revolts the national conscience", the UN, which is in charge of maintaining law and order in the impoverished Caribbean country, was attempting to play down the affair. A spokesman claimed preliminary investigations had found no evidence that rape had taken place.
Five Uruguayan soldiers involved in the incident had already returned home, he added. All would face formal proceedings in relation to their conduct, and those directly responsible for any breach of military protocol would be dishonourably discharged.
That may be insufficient to quell growing public tension, however. Protests were expected last night in Port Salut, the south-western coastal town where the alleged assault took place.
At issue is a one-minute video which is being circulated by mobile phone users across the country. It shows a young Haitian man being held down by a group of Latino men in camouflage uniforms. Several of the soldiers are wearing light blue UN-style berets.
As the men laugh, one of their comrades kneels behind the man, slaps him, and then appears to thrust his hips vigorously towards him. The video ends with the bedraggled teenager being unceremoniously dragged to his feet.
The video became public last week after it was chanced upon by two Haitian men who were exchanging music files with a Uruguayan UN soldier via Bluetooth. Due to its poor quality, the exact nature of the events it documents remain unclear.
Comrades of the soldiers have told reporters the events depicted were part of a "game" or a "joke". Navy Lieutenant Nicolas Casariego, the local base commander, insisted his men were guilty of "some kind of bullying, but nothing more".
He said the attack was not sexual in nature. Instead, the soldiers had been verbally abused by the young man and were attempting to teach him a lesson.
That interpretation differs wildly from the one offered by the victim, who remains unnamed. He has complained in a local court of being sexually assaulted, and his family is now demanding compensation. Unconfirmed reports suggest a medical examination found lacerations on his body consistent with rape.
Whoever is telling the truth, the incident is a further PR disaster for the UN mission to Haiti, which was the subject of angry protests last year when Nepalese peacekeepers were blamed for importing a deadly strain of cholera which killed about 6,000 people.
Mr Martelly ran for office pledging to revive the Haitian army, which was disbanded in 1995 amid allegations of human rights violations. That would allow him to bid farewell to the 12,000-strong UN mission based in the country, which includes roughly 1200 Uruguayans and is responsible for maintaining domestic security and providing rudimentary aid.Reuse content