One of Haiti's most powerful gang leaders said he would be willing to surrender if the UN peacekeeping force could guarantee his safety.
Heavily armed gang members controlled by the man known as "General Toutou" are believed to be behind much of the kidnappings and killings that have added to the instability in Haiti as the country prepares for fall elections to replace the interim government.
Toutou, in an interview Friday with reporters, said he has begun talks on a possible surrender with the UN peacekeeping mission that came to Haiti to restore order following the ouster of the country's first freely elected leader, President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, in February last year.
"If the [UN mission] is ready to guarantee our security, we'd be ready to give up the fight," said Toutou, whose real name is unknown.
The offer comes as UN troops have reported some progress in controlling gang violence after a series of raids in the capital, including one in July in which a prominent gang leader, Emmanuel "Dread" Wilme, was killed.
A UN official declined to discuss any possible deal to guarantee the safety of Toutou, but said the peacekeeping mission was negotiating with gangs in Bel-Air, the sprawling slum where the gang leader commands a well-armed force of street fighters.
"A window of opportunity is opening for us to reduce violence ahead of the elections," said Desmond Molloy, head of the UN disarmament program in Haiti, who estimated that gangs in the capital have an estimated 18,000 firearms.
Haitian authorities have accused Toutou of involvement in the slaying in July of a prominent journalist, Jacques Roche, along with dozens of other killings and kidnappings, and any deal could not include amnesty, said Judicial Police Chief Michael Lucius said.
"The best I can guarantee is that he will not be hurt in prison if he surrenders," said Lucius, who added that Toutou's offer suggests that his power has weakened in the Bel-Air slum.
Toutou, who fingered a rosary during the interview inside a voodoo temple, vehemently denied any connection to the slaying of Roche, whose death prompted widespread outrage and was blamed on supporters of Aristide.
"I swear I have nothing to do with the death of Jacques Roche," Toutou said. "Nothing."
He said another gang leader known as Ti Abou was responsible for the killing Roche, and that police already have him in custody -- an allegation that Lucius denied.
Authorities have said the slaying of Roche is part of a campaign by supporters Aristide to force the government into allowing the ousted leader to return to Haiti from exile in South Africa.
The 28-year-old Toutou said he was in contact with members of Aristide's Lavalas Family political party, but did not receive any orders or financing from them.
He also said he would not do anything to prevent people from participating in the fall elections, pointing out that the UN has not been prevented from operating two voter registration centers in Bel-Air -- home to about 300,000 people.
As Toutou walked through the maze of Bel-Air's narrow Alleys, people expressed strong support for the gang leader -- which he said reflected the community's belief that he offers protection against Haiti's police force and armed civilians who fight on its behalf.
"When the UN leave and if we are not here, everybody will be killed," he said.