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Civilians caught in crossfire during Port-au-Prince raids

The head of the UN mission to Haiti has publicly acknowledged international peacekeepers carrying out anti-kidnapping raids into the poorest parts of the city have to do more to avoid civilian casualties. His comments come after a series of raids in the capital, Port-au-Prince, in which witnesses said a number of innocent bystanders were either killed or wounded by peacekeepers.

"We have to improve, we have to be all the time learning from this," said Ambassador Edmond Mulet, head of the United Nations Stabilisation Mission in Haiti (Minustah). "We have learned lessons every time we have [had] these actions."

Mr Mulet made his comments to The Independent following a presentation in Washington in which the envoy outlined some of the multitude of problems facing Haiti, the poorest country in the western hemisphere and where 70 per cent of the population survive on less than $2 a day.

The envoy denied reports that UN peacekeepers had fired from helicopters, hindered Red Cross volunteers or used "heavy munitions" in the raids on December 22, December 28 and January 5. But during his presentation this week at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) he admitted: "There has been collateral damage. Definitely."

It is unclear how many people were killed in the December 22 raid in the densely-populated slum areas of Cite Soleil when several hundred Brazilian UN soldiers launched a pre-dawn raid aimed at capturing known gang leaders.

Mr Mulet said around 12 or 13 people were killed, of which 10 were known gang members; other unconfirmed reports have put the death toll higher. A number of people were also injured.

John Carroll, an Illinois-based doctor who runs a charity that provides medical aid to Haitian children, said he travelled to Cite Soleil after the raid and spoke with people who had been injured. He also visited St CatherineÕs Hospital, one of the few clinics in Cite Soleil.

"I spoke with the family with holes in their roof. They said the helicopter fired down on Cite Soleil for 3 hours. I saw the holes in the roof and the holes in the people," he said. "I went to St. Catherine's Hospital in Cite Soleil. I did not interview any doctors. I examined the patients myself and their stories seemed to correspond with their injuries."

Mr Carroll said that in the slum he spoke with a woman who gave her name as Immacula. She said that three of her daughters - aged 13, 15 and 17 - received bullet and shrapnel injuries as a result of the raid. Mr Carroll wrote on his blog: "Immacula said the bullets from the helicopter came blasting in through their ceiling. Looking up, I could see a 12 inch hole above my head letting in the sunlight, and multiple other smaller holes peppered the roof above me to the left."

Minustah say they have been tasked by the Haitian government, headed by President Rene Preval, to carry out the raids against gang members believed to be responsible for the kidnappings that in recent months have again soared in Port-au-Prince. In one notorious incident last month a group of schoolchildren were taken from the bus and held hostage. It is predominantly the poor who suffer as a result of the ongoing insecurity.

The December 22 raid in the Bwa Nef district of Cite Soleil targeted a gang led by a man called Belony. Officials said a subsequent raid on January 5 led to the arrest of two members of BelonyÕs gang, including a man called Zachari, who were sought over the their alleged involvement in the killing of two UN peacekeepers from Jordan last November.

But local people and campaigners point out that given the densely populated nature of the slums and the fact that the shanties in which people live offer no protection against gunfire, such raids routinely result in innocent people being killed. The UN and the Haitian National Police also claim that gang members in the slums have shot residents and then blamed the authorities for these deaths - a claim for which no evidence has been offered.

Following the December raid, Johnny Claircidor, a resident of Bwa Nef, told the Reuters newsagency, "The foreigners came shooting for hours without interruption and killed 10 people. Then Belony's gang members started to exchange fire with them. I personally counted 10 bodies."

The series of raids over Christmas and the New Year were not the first time the 7,000-strong UN peacekeeping force in Haiti has been at the centre of controversy. In July 2005 a UN raid, again in Cite Soleil, resulted in the death of up to 23 people. The raid was carried out to target a gang leader, Dread Wilme, but later Minustah admitted that civilians may have been killed "given the length of the operation and the violence of the clashes". It emerged UN troops had fired more than 22,000 bullets.

An internal report from the US Embassy in Haiti, recently obtained under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) by the Haiti Information Project (HIP), noted: "[An official] with Minustah acknowledged that, given the flimsy construction of homes in Cite Soleil and the large quantity of ammunition expended, it is likely that rounds penetrated many buildings, striking unintended targets."

Since the beginning of January UN forces have set up round-blocks around Cite Soleil in an effort to dampen violence. But some activists say such arrangements, along with disruption to the areaÕs fragile water supply, has only made life more miserable for the residents. Brian Concannon, who heads the US-based Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti, said: "This is beginning to resemble collective punishment against the residents of Cite Soleil. There is more to this than just the issue of gangs and alleged kidnappers."

Mr Preval was elected last February in elections organised by the UN. The election followed two years of rule by an interim government, imposed by the US, France and Canada following the ousting of President Jean-Betrand Aristide, who had been elected to office for a second term in November 2000. Some of his opponents received backing and support from elements in Washington. Mr Aristide is currently living in South Africa.