Secretary of State Colin Powell held talks in Port-au-Prince Wednesday in a brief visit to Haiti marred by a shooting incident outside the presidential palace as he met officials of the country's interim government. Mr. Powell called for international help for efforts to control Haitian violence.
The gunfire erupted outside the Haitian presidential palace just after Mr. Powell had arrived there for meetings with the country's interim president, Boniface Alexandre, and Prime Minister Gerard Latortue.
According to State Department officials, shots were fired from a car passing outside the palace and that fire was returned by U.N. security forces deployed around the building.
Some reports said shooting continued later in nearby areas of the Haitian capital, and that there were at least three civilian casualties but that could not be confirmed here.
At a news briefing, State Department Deputy Spokesman Adam Ereli said Secretary Powell and members of his party, in a holding room at the palace at the time, heard the shots but went on with their scheduled meetings.
"They heard the gunfire but it did not disrupt any of their business, nor was the secretary or any member of his staff in any danger," he said. "They changed the room location of the meeting just as a security precaution. The secretary has been able to continue his schedule basically uninterrupted and unaffected."
A diplomat who spoke to reporters in Washington said U.S. officials suspect that followers of ousted Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide were behind the shooting.
But he said such incidents are commonplace in Port-au-Prince, and that it is unclear if the gunfire was related to the secretary's visit.
At a joint news conference with Prime Minister Latortue, Mr. Powell said the solution to violence in Haiti is the continued, rapid buildup of United Nations troops in Haiti.
He said members of the U.N. contingent "have to forcefully take on" the armed individuals behind attacks like the one on Wednesday.
The Brazilian-led U.N. stabilization force began deploying in Haiti in June, replacing U.S., French, Canadian and Chilean troops who went in to keep order after Mr. Aristide's departure at the end of February amid country-wide political unrest.
The U.N. Security Council this week extended the mandate of the stabilization force until June of next year. But it is still considerably below its authorized strength of 6,700 troops and 1,600 international civilian police.
In Port-au-Prince, Mr. Powell pledged continued U.S. aid to Haiti for disaster relief and economic development, and said he is confident the country can move to elections next year to replace the interim government.
But he cautioned that all political groups must be allowed to participate and that the only outcome that will satisfy the United States is an election that is free and fair, not fraudulent or stolen.
Haiti's efforts at recovery from the political turmoil earlier this year were set back by disastrous floods in September spawned by tropical storm Jeanne that left more than 2,000 people dead or missing.
Political violence attributed to supporters of Mr. Aristide in recent weeks has further complicated the situation. Haitian leaders accuse Mr. Aristide of inciting violence from exile in South Africa, but he denies doing so.
The United States has allocated nearly $50 million to help Haiti overcome flood damage and pledged $230 million in long-term economic aid at a Washington donors conference in July.
It is also providing about $20 million a year to help Haiti deal with an HIV/AIDS infection rate of about five-percent of the population, the highest in the Western Hemisphere.
Mr. Powell's visit to Haiti came on World AIDS Day and among other events there, he met with young Haitians who receive and provide HIV/AIDS support services.