Thu, Jun 03, 2004 - Page 7 News List

UN troops prepare to take over peacekeeping in Haiti

MANDATE As US forces prepare to exit the troubled nation, soldiers from Brazil, Nepal and several other countries prepare for challenges that might be insurmountable

AP , PORT-AU-PRINCE, HAITI

UN peacekeepers have established a command post in Haiti, preparing to take over from a US-led force later this month despite uncertainty over troop numbers, funding and how to help thousands of flood victims.

In a symbolic ceremony Tuesday, Brazilian General Augusto Heleno Ribeiro Pereira took control of the 8,000-strong UN force at Haiti's police academy. Although only a fraction of troops have arrived, most are expected to come by the end of this month, when US troops leave and UN troops start performing the duties of the 3,600-member multinational task force.

Their initial mission will be to provide security, which includes disarming rebels, who helped oust former Haitian president Jean-Bertrand Aristide on Feb. 29, and pro-Aristide militants. Both sides have said they will disarm if the other side does the same, but the US-led troops have collected fewer than 200 weapons and many have been in symbolic handovers.

"Disarmament is very important, but what is also important is the disarmament of the spirit and the desire to rebuild," said the general, as about 80 troops -- including Brazilians, Chileans, Canadians and Nepalese -- replaced their camouflage caps with blue UN berets.

Less than a dozen of the 1,900 US troops will stay on with the UN force. Others in the in the 3,600-strong force will have staggered departure dates. France will leave later this month, Canada will stay on until September and Chile will participate until the UN mandate expires.

"The UN has a big job ahead of it, but they're coming in with double the force and will be here for twice as much time," US Ambassador James Foley said.

"The operation will deal with security, but it will also help the government spread its authority, which is not the case now. Rebels are still in control of a pretty significant chunk of real estate," Foley said.

The symbolic handover comes as the country of 8 million copes with deadly floods that killed more than 1,700 in Haiti and the Dominican Republic. It was unclear whether the newly arrived troops would be involved in emergency operations to flooded areas.

The UN says there will be 6,700 troops and 1,622 civilian police from more than two dozen countries, led by 1,200 Brazilian troops.

Whether the force will reach full strength is unclear. Brazil, Chile and Argentina have pledged up to 2,500 troops. Other countries, including strife-torn nations such as Nepal and Rwanda, have promised 750 troops each.

Interim Haitian Prime Minister Gerard Latortue said he would try to persuade the US to extend their stay, saying only US troops have a "dissuasive effect" on the population.

Several members of Aristide's government and inner circle have been arrested on drug-trafficking charges, including former senator Fourel Celestin, who surrendered on Tuesday at the US embassy in Port-au-Prince. He was quickly flown to Miami, where he will likely be arraigned, according to a US official who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Barring more help from US troops, Latortue said he hoped the UN force would stay until Feb. 7, 2006, when an elected president is to be installed.

He also asked the international community to tackle the root of Haiti's instability, which he said was grinding poverty.

"What we need here is a UN mission that will not limit itself to maintaining the peace," Latortue said after the ceremony.

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