UN troops and ex-soldiers from Haiti's disbanded army fought two gunbattles in the country's southwest and center, killing at least four people, including two peacekeepers, in the deadliest day for the 10-month-old UN mission, officials said.
The Sri Lankan and Nepalese soldiers who died on Sunday were the first peacekeepers killed in fighting here since the UN troops arrived in June last year, replacing a US-led force, to try and stabilize the impoverished, volatile nation following the ouster of its leader.
The first clash erupted after UN troops raided a police station occupied by armed ex-soldiers in Petit-Goave, an ex-soldier stronghold about 72km west of Port-au-Prince, setting off a fierce gunbattle, UN spokesman Toussaint Kongo-Doudou said.
"We lost one man," Kongo-Doudou said, adding that three other peacekeepers were injured and in stable condition. Two ex-soldiers died and 10 others were wounded.
Using a loudspeaker, the Brazilian commander of UN troops in Haiti, Lieutenant-General Augusto Heleno Ribeiro, had tried for 20 minutes to get the former soldiers to surrender peacefully when they opened fire on UN troops, Kongo-Doudou said.
"We wanted to resolve this peacefully but our troops received a hostile response from the insurgents and so they responded with force," he said.
Gerard Nelson, a Petit-Goave resident, was sleeping about a block from the police station when he was awoken by gunfire and ran outside.
"There were bullets bouncing off the walls. People on the street were running to get out the way. It sounded like a war," Nelson said.
Afterward, UN troops moved in on the building and removed at least one fallen peacekeeper on a stretcher, he said.
Later Sunday, a group of Nepalese soldiers driving to the central town of Hinche exchanged gunfire with a different group of former soldiers, UN spokesman Damian Onses-Cardona said. The ex-soldiers killed one Nepalese and stole one of their vehicles. It wasn't clear if the ex-soldiers suffered any casualties.
Shortly afterward, Brazilian peacekeepers backed by Haiti's national police began advancing on nearby Terre Rouge, another stronghold of ex-soldiers who occupy the town's police station. The troops reached about 3km outside the town before stopping at nightfall.
"They'll continue tomorrow," Onses-Cardona said. "It was an area not under control so basically it's a recover and control mission."
The clashes were the first major confrontation between the 7,400-strong UN force and former members of Haiti's disbanded army, who helped oust former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in a 1991 coup and again in an armed rebellion a year ago.
Haiti, the Western Hemisphere's poorest nation, has been in turmoil for years. A US-led peacekeeping force was deployed after Aristide was forced into exile in February last year, and this force was replaced by the UN peacekeepers in June. Despite their presence, armed rebels and former soldiers still control much of Haiti's countryside and the peacekeepers have been criticized for failing to curb violence.
UN forces detained 35 ex-soldiers following Sunday's gunbattle, Kongo-Doudou said.
"We are now in control of the police station," UN civilian police spokesman Jean-Francois Vezina said.
The soldiers, many well into their 50s with fading uniforms and aging rifles, continue to control much of Haiti's countryside and a handful of provincial towns, bucking calls by the interim government and the UN force to disarm.