US troops take on gunmen in Haiti

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A COMPANY of United States infantry led by three Sheridan tanks started a wave of searches and arrests in Port-au-Prince yesterday, by closing down the headquarters of the Front for the Advancement and Progress of Haiti (Fraph) gunmen who support the military regime.

Crowds of Haitians shouted 'tie them up' as some of Haiti's most feared killers were forced into trucks at gunpoint, their hands tied behind their backs. A woman who had been with the gunmen was finally searched by troops of the 10th Mounted Division and was found to have two handguns concealed in her clothes.

The take-over of the headquarters came hours after a US soldier was shot in the stomach, in an exchange of gunfire outside a military compound in the southern coastal town of Les Cayes. It was the first time an American soldier has been wounded in Haiti since 20,000 US troops began arriving two weeks ago to restore democracy. The special forces soldier was reported to be in stable condition after surgery.

The Fraph gunmen looked sullen and dejected yesterday as their headquarters was taken over in front of jeering crowds. Brigadier-General Al Close, in charge of the operation, said his mission was 'to isolate and neutralise' such places across Port-au-Prince. He said his men had found heavy machine-guns as well as Uzi and AK-47 sub-machine-guns.

As other paramilitary bases in the capital were taken over, the balance of power in Port-au-Prince was shifting. The regime has depended for decades not on the numbers of the army and police - only 7,000 strong - but the extreme savagery of the attaches, whom US intelligence estimates to number up to 28,000.

However, the actual number of killers, responsible for the murder of some 3,000 people since the military coup three years ago, is not large. Death squads are a Port-au- Prince phenomenon, and the UN human rights monitors, expelled in July, thought they were tightly controlled by the army and police and their victims carefully targeted.

Among those arrested at the Fraph headquarters yesterday was a man in a grey sweatshirt. People in the crowd said he had shot one of the demonstrators who died last Friday. Ten Haitian policemen, who were driving in a truck near the headquarters as the US struck, were handcuffed and gagged.

There is no doubt the US action is immensely popular among the mass of Haitians, who have been fearful since last Friday's march was bloodily broken up. Yesterday people chanted in creole: 'Who is the bold? America is the bold.'

There were other searches as tanks and armoured vehicles fanned out across the city and helicopters clattered overhead. Lieutenant- General Hugh Shelton, commander of the US force in Haiti, said earlier that large searches would take place and that he had told General Raoul Cedras, the Haitian army commander and leader of the ruling junta, that 'if he wants the Haitian military to survive as an institution, then they have to do better'.