Wed, Jan 11, 2006 - Page 7 News List

Haiti shuts down to protest spate of recent kidnappings


Business ground to a halt in a general strike called to protest a wave of kidnappings that has terrified people and cast a shadow over already troubled efforts to restore democracy in Haiti.

The Haitian Chamber of Commerce and Industry called Monday's strike to pressure UN peacekeepers to move against gangs -- allegedly loyal to ousted president Jean-Bertrand Aristide -- who have carried out many of the kidnappings.

But leaders of the peacekeeping force were preoccupied with their own tragedy -- the weekend death of their most senior commander, Brazilian Lieutenant General Urano Teixeira da Matta Bacellar, in an apparent suicide.

Brazilian peacekeepers stood in formation on Monday outside a military hospital and saluted Bacellar's coffin, draped in Brazilian and UN flags, while diplomats and military officials praised the general as a compassionate soldier deeply committed to restoring order to Haiti after the rebellion that toppled Aristide nearly two years ago.

Chilean General Eduardo Aldunate Herman, interim commander of the 7,400 peacekeeping troops in the country, said Bacellar's death would not undermine efforts to stabilize Haiti for a presidential election scheduled to take place on Feb. 7, after four postponements.

"Be certain, General Bacellar, that we continue to accomplish the mission and our best proof of loyalty to you will be to ensure that peace and security reach every corner of this country," Aldunate said.

Bacellar was found dead of a gunshot wound on Saturday, slumped against the balcony of his room in the upscale Hotel Montana. A senior UN official has confirmed that the general shot himself in the head. Authorities have not yet officially disclosed the cause of death, citing the ongoing investigation.

Brazilian Ambassador Paulo Cordeiro de Andrade Pinto said on Monday that he saw a gun next to the general's body but that Brazilian investigators want to probe other possibilities before confirming it was a suicide. He declined to say what those possibilities were.

Pinto said the general was a longtime friend and he did not detect any change in Bacellar's normally "serious" personality in a conversation they had Friday night.

"I never imagined that a man of his caliber could do what most people think he did," Pinto said.

Brazil's Vice President Jose Alencar said on Monday that his country intended to remain at the helm of peacekeeping operations in Haiti and a UN official in New York said discussions had begun on finding a replacement to lead the effort to restore order ahead of next month's election.

Difficulties in distributing voter registration cards and setting up polling stations contributed to postponements in elections, in which 35 candidates are running for president and hundreds more for 129 legislative seats.

But kidnappings for ransom have added to the uncertainty. International election workers and journalists were among those taken hostage by gangs. Ordinary Haitians also have been targeted.

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