UNITED NATIONS – A group of U.S.-based human rights and trade union activists is urging the United Nations to investigate the alleged killings of innocent civilians by its peacekeeping troops in the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince last week.
The activists, who were dispatched to Haiti by the San Francisco Labour Council early this month to participate in a labour conference there, said they had evidence proving that U.N. military forces had carried out a "massacre" in Cité Soleil, one of the poorest communities in Port-au-Prince, on Jul. 6.
"The evidence of a massacre by U.N. military forces is substantial and compelling," activist Seth Donnelly, who returned from Haiti last Sunday, told IPS. "It completely contradicts the official version."
Soon after the Jul. 6 incident, U.N. military officials in Haiti justified their actions by saying that the raid was "designed to rout gangs" that have been active in Port-au-Prince. A U.N. mission spokesman said the operation "killed or wounded several gang members."
But Donnelly and his colleagues, who interviewed scores of local residents, doctors and human right activists, said many among the dead were innocent civilians, who were completely unarmed when the U.N. military forces carried out the raid.
Haiti has been in the grip of escalating violence since the overthrow of its democratically-elected President Jean Bertrand Aristide, who is currently living in exile in South Africa. Aristide has repeatedly accused Washington of toppling his government. He says he was kidnapped by the U.S. military personnel from his bedroom on Feb. 28, 2004.
Haiti watchers say since Aristide’s ouster from power, the people of poor neighbourhoods like Cité Soleil have faced extreme repression — including extra-judicial killings — at the hands of Haitian police. In order to protect their community from police oppression, many young adults have set up their own armed networks, which are labeled by authorities as "gangs."
The U.N. mission in Haiti is insisting that these networks turn in their arms, but has failed to rein in the police units that have been terrorising the residents of poor neighbourhoods of Port-au-Prince, some critics say.
"The bandits tried to fight our men. They suffered serious losses and we found five bodies in what was left of a house," U.N. peacekeeping spokesman Col. Elouafi Boulbars told reporters a day after the operation.
U.N. troops used helicopters, tanks, machine guns and tear gas in the operation, according to residents, who described it as the deadliest raid since the peacekeepers were deployed there last year. Currently, there are more than 7,000 U.N. troops stationed in Haiti.
"We viewed film footage taken by a Haitian who was on the scene when the U.N. operation was occurring," Donnelly said. "The video shows many of the killings. One can view at least 10 unarmed people either in the process of being killed or who were already killed."
In addition to interviews with the residents and medical aid workers, Donnelly and his colleagues also interviewed U.N. peacekeeping officials, Lt. Gen. Augusto Heleno and Col. Jacques Morneau. The two officials told activists the purpose of the operation was to capture Dread Wilme, who led one of Cité Soleil’s armed networks.
Both the U.N. and the interim government have portrayed Dread Wilme as a gangster. However, in the eyes of many residents, he was a popular leader who cared about his community. Last Saturday, thousands of Haitians in Port-au-Prince took part in his funeral.
Activists say the testimonies they have gathered from Cité Soleil and the video footage suggested there were at least 20 people killed during and after the U.N. operation, in addition to the five dead whose bodies were buried by their families.
The eyewitness who filmed the incident reported that people were killed in their homes and outside. One man named Leon Cherry, 46, was shot and killed on his way to work. A woman who was a street vendor was shot in the head and killed. A mother and her two young children were killed in their own home. A man named Mira was shot and killed in his bathroom, the witness said.
"The video footage shows many of the killings while they were occurring," said Donnelly.
U.N. officials are tightlipped about the activists’ charge that the Jul. 6 incident was a massacre. A U.N. spokesperson provided a translation of fragmented notes from the U.N. military briefing in Port-au-Prince suggesting the U.N. does not consider the incident as a massacre.
"There were never any fire from any helicopters," Lt. Col. Boulbars told reporters in Haiti Thursday. "On the contrary, they (helicopters) stopped some of the firing on the gang members. The gang activity is what is harming relief and humanitarian effort."
Meanwhile, Donnelly and other activists say they are not going to give up until the U.N. Human Rights Commission orders an inquiry into the issue.
"Haiti cannot have stability if you don’t hold those responsible for committing human right abuses," he said.
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