UN admits civilians may have died in Haiti peacekeeping raid

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The UN has for the first time admitted that a number of innocent civilians may have become "collateral victims" and killed during a controversial raid by peacekeeping forces in Haiti. The admission will likely add to the tension inside the capital city, Port-au-Prince, already wracked by violence and chaos – and the recent suicide of the UN military commander - as it prepares for a crucial election.

The summary of an internal inquiry, passed to The Independent, says a number of people may been caught in crossfire between UN peacekeepers and armed gang members, headed by a well-known leader, Emanuel "Dread" Wilme. The report claims that UN troops fired only in self-defence.

The raid involving 400 peacekeepers took place last July in the Cite Soleil slum with the stated intention of cracking-down on gangs responsible for ongoing violence and kidnappings in the capital. Many of the gangs are supporters of former president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Mr Aristide, democratically elected and with overwhelming support among the poor, was ousted two years ago following an uprising organised mainly by members of the business elite who had received support from the US.

Video footage taken after the raid showed the bodies of numerous apparently unarmed victims. Independent witnesses said up to 23 people were killed – among them the wife and two young sons of Fredi Romelus, a Cite Soleil resident who told reporters that UN troops opened fire on his home. " They surrounded our house... and I ran thinking my wife and the children were behind me. They couldn't get out and the [UN] fired into the house," he said.

The admission by the UN mission (MINUSTAH) that civilians may have been killed "given the length of the operation and the violence of the clashes" will do nothing to ease the fraught situation in Haiti, where a presidential election has been repeatedly delayed. The delays have been blamed on the violence and problems with distributing voter identification cards.

The business community has called on the UN to do more to stop the violence and yesterday a national strike was held in protest. But supporters of Mr Aristide say this is nothing more than excuse to clamp down further on members of his Lavalas party. Human rights campaigners have detailed widespread suppression of Lavalas members by the interim government and the Haitian National Police.

Among the cases highlighted by Amnesty International is that of Father Gerard Jean-Juste, a Catholic priest and friend of Mr Aristide, who has been held without charge since last summer. Officials say Mr Jean-Juste, 59, recently diagnosed with leukemia, is being held on suspicion of involvement in a murder but AI said "he is a prisoner of conscience detained solely for the peaceful exercise of his right to freedom of expression".

Despite its admission that civilians may have been shot, the UN claims the majority of those died last July were actually killed by other gang members in reprisal for collaborating with the UN or else celebrating the death of Mr Wilme. It described the video footage a "manifest example" of disinformation.

Kevin Pina, the Haitian-based journalist who heads a team that shot the footage, dismissed the UN's claims. "I personally handed a copy of that video to [the UN special envoy, Juan] Valdes at JFK airport. He described it as propaganda and lies without even looking at it. They are predisposed to saying this. They do not want to look at the evidence."

He said he met recently with Mr Romelus, whose family was killed. "His life has been destroyed. If I can find him, why can't the UN find him and interview him?"

Mr Pina said the UN had now established a system of embedding journalists with peacekeeping forces. He also said the US and Canada were funding programmes to train Haitian journalists. "They are the ones trying to control the media and yet they accuse us of disinformation."

Meanwhile, officials are investigating the apparent suicide of MINUSTAH's military commander, General Urano Teixeira da Matta Bacella, whose body was discovered in his hotel room on Saturday. Mr Bacella, a Brazilian, took charge of the UN force in September and was not involved in July's raid.

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