Haiti moved to crack down on a band of former and would-be soldiers who have staged protests for more than a year, closing two old military bases they had occupied and locking up dozens of participants in a pro-army march including two US citizens.
Haitian National Police spokesman Gary Desrosiers said the Americans were jailed because they were acting as if they were part of Haiti’s military on Friday during a demonstration to demand that Haitian President Michel Martelly restore the country’s armed forces, which were abolished in 1995 because of their abusive record.
The march by hundreds of former soldiers and their young recruits in Haiti’s capital turned violent and 50 participants were detained.
On Saturday, authorities said Americans Zeke Petrie, 39, of Ohio; and Steven Shaw, 57, of Massachusetts, were among those in jail.
Police said they were driving vehicles with the pro-army demonstrators in the march when they were picked up a few blocks from the National Palace.
Petrie was wearing a black T-shirt with the army’s name on it and Shaw was dressed in camouflage pants.
“I am friends with the guys,” Petrie said from behind bars at the Canape Vert police station. “These guys are working for the betterment of the country.”
Petrie, an occasional interpreter for foreign journalists, said he had not been formally charged, but overheard police say he would be charged with “working with terrorists.”
Two other Americans, Benjamin Depp, 29, a freelance -photojournalist from North Carolina and John Strutner, 22, a volunteer at Child Hope International from California, along with Canadian Seanna McLeod, 38, a volunteer at a malnutrition clinic from British Columbia, were held overnight in the lobby of the police station after trying to bring insulin, syringes and swabs to Petrie, who said he is diabetic.
Desrosiers said he knew nothing about the three people held overnight, but each of them said that government prosecutor Jean-Renel Senatus told them they had to stay at the police station until they answered questions with an attorney and an interpreter about how they knew Petrie.
Late on Saturday, Haitian police shut down two of the 10 old military bases the former soldiers had been occupying and the wannabe soldiers fled to an undisclosed location.
Haitian Secretary of State for Public Security Reginald Delva said the rest of the bases would soon be closed.
The paramilitary-like presence of the former soldiers and their regular marches and occupations in mismatched uniforms, had become an embarrassment to the UN peacekeeping mission and the Haitian government, which hopes to court foreign investors.
The rally on Friday began peacefully, but some people near the National Palace threw rocks amid a heavy UN presence. A few of the men in military uniforms carried handguns. That evening, police exchanged gunfire outside an old army base in the Carrefour District outside Port-au-Prince.
Four civilians were treated for gunshot wounds on Friday night at two Doctors Without Borders (DWB) clinics in Carrefour, DWB spokesperson Mathieu Fortoul said.
Martelly has said he wants to revive the military, but that it must be done legally.