Wed, Sep 01, 2004 - Page 7 News List

Haiti gunmen open fire on visiting French delegation

AP , PORT-AU-PRINCE, HAITI

Gunmen opened fire on a hospital while a delegation of high-ranking French officials was inside, sparking a gunbattle that left at least one gunman dead while wounding a French soldier and a Haitian police officer, an official said.

Renaud Muselier, France's secretary of state for foreign affairs, was inside St. Catherine's Hospital at the time but wasn't injured during the attack Monday in the Cite Soleil slum, a French official said on condition of anonymity.

Muselier is the No. 2 official in the French Foreign Ministry and is on a visit aimed at boosting cooperation between Haiti and its former colonial ruler.

The slum -- one of Haiti's poorest -- has traditionally been a stronghold of ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, and some loyalists have pledged to resist the interim government that replaced Aristide after he left Feb. 29 amid a bloody rebellion.

The French delegation and their armed escorts were holed up in the building for about two hours Monday until Brazilian troops who are leading a UN peacekeeping force arrived in armored vehicles and took them away, the French official said.

He said the delegation was comprised of about 10 officials and that about 100 men from the neighborhood surrounded the hospital. A few hundred rounds were fired in the gunbattle before the peacekeepers arrived shortly after noon, the official said. He added that the French soldier was lightly wounded by gunfire.

No further information was immediately available about the extent of the French soldier's injuries or those of the Haitian police officer who was wounded. The identity of the slain gunman also wasn't available.

UN peacekeepers remained in Cite Soleil and were working to piece together what happened, said Toussaint Kongo-Doudou, a spokesman for the peacekeeping force in the Caribbean country.

Aristide has claimed US and French forces forced him out, something vehemently denied by Washington and Paris.

While Aristide remains in exile in South Africa, tensions remain in the poorest country of the Americas, where armed rebels still effectively control some areas despite the presence of the UN force and where some armed Aristide supporters vow to press for his return.

Former soldiers of the disbanded army are currently occupying the police station in southern Petit-Goave and also patrolling southern Jacmel. They also have said they plan to send some to the southern town of Miragoane in the coming days, and their leaders have called for the army to be reconstituted.

Aristide was ousted in a 1991 coup and restored to power in 1994 by US troops. He disbanded the army in 1995, and now some ex-soldiers are asking for their pension benefits to be restored.

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