Haiti police fear violence and arrest troublemakers

Haitian authorities are rounding up troublemakers to prevent sporadic looting from turning into wider violence in the aftermath of the Caribbean nation's devastating earthquake, a senior security official said.

Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, has a history of street violence and looting during all-too frequent bouts of political unrest and natural disaster in its volatile recent history.

"There have been some attempts to make trouble. There are thieves coming out," Haitian police inspector-general Jean-Yonel Trecile told Reuters late yesterday.

"To make sure this does not spread, we have taken a number of these people off the streets. We have arrested about 50 people. I hope now we will stay peaceful."

Shooting has broken out several times in downtown Port-au-Prince, witnesses say, since Tuesday's earthquake, killing tens of thousands of people.

Some refugees, in makeshift camps all over the coastal capital, say thieves are preying on their meager possessions, while looters have been carrying goods out of a few shops.

But Haiti's feared gangs do not appear to be terrorizing the streets as they have in the past, locals say. The desperation of the homeless and hungry also has so far not turned into mass protests or ransackings, although many worry that may still happen.

Trecile, one of several inspector-generals leading the 9,000-strong police force, said it was crucial for Haitians to remain calm and united.

"No one is responsible for this, there is no one to blame, we are all in this together," he said. "Those of us who have survived need to be courageous to cross this difficult step, show solidarity and help one another."

Trecile said about half of the Haitian police force was working with the rest caught up in the disaster and trying to help their families. At least 50 policemen were dead, he said.

"The priorities for those of us working is to help control the vehicles in the street, distribute food, look for bodies, and protect the gas stations," he said in the interview at a police base near the airport where Haitian President Rene Preval is based after the partial collapse of the presidential palace.

As a former soldier, Trecile has lived through plenty in Haiti, from the fall of governments to the passage of hurricanes. "I've never seen anything like this, in all my years," he said, shaking his head.

He and other officials said they were grateful for the help of U.N. peacekeepers already stationed here and U.S. military personnel arriving in droves.

"We are working well together," he said. "We really need them."