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US Official: Haiti a 'Nation of Violence' - 2004-03-10

A senior U.S. military commander says the U.S.-led multi-national force in Haiti will attempt to seize illegal weapons from armed groups, in what he calls "a nation of violence," where there are many guns.

General James Hill, commander of the U.S. military's Southern Command, is appealing to Haitians with illegal firearms to turn them in. "We strongly encourage all civilians to lay down their weapons and disarm to ensure the safety and security of Haiti," he said.

Speaking to Pentagon reporters before returning to his headquarters in Miami, in the southern state of Florida, General Hill says the commander of the 1,600 U.S. Marines now in Haiti will seize weapons from any Haitians they meet while on patrol. "As his forces move through Port-au-Prince, and they encounter any armed Haitian, they are to take that weapon from that Haitian," he said.

General Hill says exceptions will be made for individuals on legitimate security jobs, who have a valid Haitian weapons permit. He also says the Haitian police will take the lead in the disarmament effort.

But in addition to weapons encountered on patrols, he says U.S. forces will hunt down illegal weapons stockpiles they may learn about. "As we develop intelligence and can find weapons caches, we are going to go after those," he said.

General Hill says disarmament represents a new mission for the Marines and other members of the multi-national force. He says it is not an expansion of the force's duties but rather a clarification. He also says the force will intervene to halt any violence between Haitians.

He says there is no evidence of any organized resistance to the presence of multi-national troops, who moved into Haiti in the wake of political unrest that led the country's president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, to flee.

In addition to 1,600 U.S. Marines, the force includes over 500 French soldiers, more than 320 Chileans and over 50 Canadians with an additional 400 Canadians expected to arrive shortly. It will eventually turn over peacekeeping responsibilities to a United Nations force.