Protesters accuse Haitian leaders of failing flood victims; U.N. soldier wounded in gunbattle

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (AP) – A gunbattle broke out between U.N. peacekeepers and supporters of ousted Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide on Saturday, wounding a peacekeeper for the first time in the force’s 4-month-old mission.

The clashes, which Haitian police said also left one officer wounded, came as protesters in the northwestern city of Gonaives crowded outside a Mass for flood victims accusing Haiti’s interim president and prime minister – who were attending – of not doing enough to help hungry survivors three weeks after Tropical Storm Jeanne.

Heavy gunfire erupted in the capital, Port-au-Prince, when Brazilian troops backed by Haitian police rolled through the volatile slum of Bel Air, where armed men were demanding the return of Aristide from exile, said U.N. spokesman Toussaint Kongo-Doudou.

Peacekeepers “came under heavy fire and they returned fire,” Kongo-Doudou said.

The Brazilian soldier was wounded in the foot – the first casualty among some 3,000 peacekeepers, Kongo-Doudou said. He also said it appeared some of the gunmen were wounded, but it was unclear how many.

Kongo-Doudou said troops and police arrested more than 60 people suspected of attacking them. Police were seen detaining some men, holding them to the ground at gunpoint and tying their hands with rope.

The clashes came a day after the beheaded bodies of a father and son were found in another Port-au-Prince slum of La Saline.

Elsewhere Saturday, Argentine peacekeepers guarded a cathedral in the northwestern city of Gonaives from more than 100 protesters, who shouted insults at visiting interim Prime Minister Gerard Latortue and President Boniface Alexandre.

“If the government doesn’t take responsibility for things here, then we will. Remember, it was Gonaives that got rid of Aristide,” rebel Wilfort Ferdinand said, addressing protesters and hundreds of other onlookers.

An estimated 200,000 people are homeless in Gonaives, many living on sidewalks and rooftops. Beating on buckets and waving tree boughs, protesters snaked through the crowd chanting, “We are not afraid and we won’t give in to pressure!” They complained Latortue’s interim government hasn’t done enough to help flood victims since Tropical Storm Jeanne struck three weeks ago.

“The floods took everything we own. The government hasn’t done anything. We don’t want Latortue anymore,” said Estime Derival, a 21-year-old protester.

The storm unleashed floods and mudslides that killed at least 1,870 and left some 884 missing, most presumed dead.

At least 26 people have been killed in violence that erupted as Aristide supporters stepped up protests near the end of September, demanding their leader’s return from exile in South Africa and an end to “the invasion” – referring to U.S. Marines who arrived as Aristide left in February and U.N. peacekeepers who took over in June.

Saturday’s protest in Gonaives involved a different camp – Aristide opponents. It was a striking shift, because Saturday’s heckling aimed at Latortue by some of the rebels came in the same square where Latortue had praised them as “freedom fighters” after Aristide left. A small number in the crowd chanted “Latortue’s a thief!”

More than 500 worshippers filled the St. Charles Boromee Cathedral as a choir sang hymns for the ceremonial funeral. Latortue and Alexandre sat stone-faced. The crowd of onlookers outside swelled to about 2,000 as the leaders walked to the nearby mayor’s office, escorted by police.

“I am a son of Gonaives. I’m not going to let Gonaives die,” Latortue said through a bullhorn before leaving for a cemetery where he and the president laid a wreath at a mass grave where hundreds of victims are buried.

The U.S. State Department warned Americans on Friday not to travel to the Caribbean country except for emergencies, citing “serious risks.”



Associated Press writer Stevenson Jacobs in Gonaives contributed to this report.

AP-ES-10-09-04 1834EDT



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