Slum gangs prove a headache for Clinton

Haiti elections: As polling day approaches, even the police must be protected by UN troops
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Cite Soleil, Haiti

Altis Max Vital, the police commissaire, stood almost to attention as he told us that his men were outnumbered by the bad guys in his precinct, the sub-human slum district of Cite Soleil outside Haiti's capital, Port- au-Prince.

He stood because there were no chairs in the bare, stone-floored "office", little bigger than a public toilet booth; to attention, because he was clearly proud to be at the head of 100 men at the age of 24.

Because of this seething slum city's reputation as a centre of violence, political and otherwise, Mr Vital is an important member of the new, US- trained, Haitian National Police, formed under President Jean Bertrand Aristide to replace the dreaded military-led police force of former years.

His preoccupation is the possibility of armed attacks by a shadowy new group called the Armee Rouge (Red Army) in this "city" of 200,000 souls, on Haiti's presidential election day on Sunday. The well-armed group - most foreign observers based here prefer to call them a gang - is thought to have provoked a series of incidents in recent weeks, including an attack on the police station late last month which freed seven Red Army prisoners and forced Mr Vital and his men to flee.

They returned, looking as dignified as they could under the circumstances, at dawn last Friday, but only under the protection of several platoons of US and Bangladeshi soldiers from the United Nations peace-keeping force which has ringed the building ever since, along with the barbed wire.

Mr Vital, in a tennis shirt and blue jeans, said his men could handle the Red Army with the help of their UN friends. But what will happen after 29 February next year, when the UN troops are due to pull out, is another question. The US and its allies are discussing leaving behind some soldiers and police officers to bolster security after the scheduled departure date.

In the meantime, the main preoccupation here is whether the Red Army, or other newly blossomed groups such as the Saddam Hussein faction in the north of the country, will attempt to disrupt Sunday's election to replace Mr Aristide. With US troops moving into Bosnia, the possibility that 2,500 American troops could be sucked in and forced to stay on in Haiti is one that President Bill Clinton cannot relish.

Most foreign observers here do not take the new groups particularly seriously, but concede that they may be revamped versions of earlier militias, dismantled after last year's US military intervention, and could prove disruptive.

"The Red Army is a revolutionary group," said Mr Vital, confirming its existence to the media for the first time. "If they were old Tontons Macoutes, we would know who they are,'' he added, referring to the feared militiamen who terrorised the population under the Duvalier dynasty. ''We estimated there are 200 of them in Cite Soleil, scattered in small cells.''

"We think they've come from various political groups and are essentially mercenary,'' Mr Vital added. ''They're dangerous only if they can bring the people with them, and here the people are against them. They may be well-armed . . . but we have the spirit to defeat them.''

Because Cite Soleil is a swarming, stinking mass of shanty homes, rubbish dumps, sewers, humans and animals, making it easy for gunmen to fire and disappear, Mr Vital's men do not venture out on foot. They use unmarked pickup trucks, often accompanied by jeeps packed with UN troops - usually from Third World countries such as Bangladesh, who are welcomed more warmly than Americans or Europeans.

Outside the police station, Chief Inspector Adi Hirner of the Austrian police, an adviser with the UN force, told us: "I think everybody's a bit nervous about the elections. A lot depends on Aristide, what he tells his people.'' He noted that the so-called Interim Police Force set up by Mr Aristide as a transitionary force, and still including military personnel, had not yet been disbanded despite a presidential decree last week.

Commenting on the new Haitian police force, Mr Hirner said: ''There are some good officers, and some bad, as in any police force.''