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Friday, August 11, 2006

Haiti tells gangs to disarm or face death

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (Reuters) - Haiti's government threw down the gauntlet to the impoverished and violent Caribbean nation's armed gangs on Thursday, telling them to lay down their weapons or be killed.

"It's clear. You surrender your weapons and enter the DDR program," said Prime Minister Jacques Edouard Alexis. "If you refuse, you'll be killed."

Alexis was referring to a Demobilization, Disarmament and Reinsertion program run by U.N. peacekeepers aimed at stabilizing Haiti and curbing kidnappings and endemic political bloodletting.

His comments, before a legislative assembly, marked the first ultimatum to gang leaders from the newly installed government of President Rene Preval.

After Preval won election in February, the level of violence in Haiti dropped sharply. But its resurgence has prompted U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who visited Port-au-Prince last week, to advise the Security Council against curtailing the U.N. peacekeeping force.

At least 100 people have been shot dead in the capital Port-au-Prince over the last two months and about 400 others have been injured by gunshots, according to hospital records cited on Thursday by Ronald Lareche, who heads the Public Safety Committee of the lower house of parliament.

He said the death toll, from what were mostly believed to be gang-related shootings, included 85 victims in July alone.

Government officials have said drug lords were now seeking to bankroll armed gangs, to win de facto control over them and block any disarmament plans.

The violent status quo in Haiti provides good cover for trafficking in narcotics, the officials say.

"They (drug kingpins) want to make sure the chaotic situation endures so that they may continue to carry out their dirty work," Alexis said.

Gang leaders have made tentative offers to disarm in the past, including one last week from the young toughs who control Haiti's largest slum, but none of them have come to fruition so far.
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