United Nations peacekeepers on Tuesday took a step toward assuming command of the multinational force in Haiti that is now led by the United States. By the end of this month, U.N. peacekeepers will be completely responsible for handling security in Haiti, a country wracked by political violence and natural disasters.
Haiti's national police band played the country's national anthem as about 100 U.N. peacekeepers from Brazil, Chile, Nepal and Rwanda symbolically replaced their national headgear with blue U.N. berets at a ceremony held at the Port-au-Prince police training academy.
The transition to a full U.N. peacekeeping force is expected to take about one month. U.S. and French troops, who make up the bulk of the multi-national force now in Haiti, are not expected to hand over operational command until the end of June, when sufficient numbers of U.N. forces are expected to be in Haiti to provide security.
The troops will be under the command of a Brazilian general. One of their primary missions will be to disarm armed gangs and rebels who threaten security in the impoverished Caribbean nation.
Haiti's interim Prime Minister, Gerard Latortue, says he hopes both military and civil authorities in the U.N. understand what is at stake in Haiti. ?What we need here is a U.N. mission that does not limit itself to maintaining the peace,? he said. ?They will have to get involved in the development process also. I asked the Secretary General to make sure the U.N. mission will have two heads, one for police and the other for development. I hope I will get it.?
The U.N. says it will provide Haiti with 6,700 and 1,200 police. So far Brazil, Argentina and Chile say they will provide their full quota of troops but others like Nepal and Rwanda say they might have difficulty without financial help. U.N. officials say only a fraction of the $35 million dollars set aside for the six-month mission has been received. Haitian authorities say the mission should also be extended through presidential elections scheduled for next year.
The U.S.-led multinational force entered Haiti following the departure of ex-President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in late February. At the time, Haiti was engulfed in a wave of violence as armed gangs who supported Mr. Aristide terrorized the capital and armed rebels who helped to force Mr. Aristide's departure occupied large parts of the country.
Since then the 3,600 member force, made up largely of U.S. and French troops, has restored security in most of Haiti. The troops have also rebuilt schools, clinics and performed other infrastructure work.
However, U.S. Marine Lieutenant Colonel Dave Lapan, a spokesman for the multi-national force, said that he believes the force will largely be remembered for the work it has done over the past week, delivering 125 tons of food and supplies to victims of flash floods that are believed to have killed more than 1,700 people in Haiti and the Dominican Republic.
?Some of the projects that we have talked about, the schools, all great stuff, but how many people really found out about them,? he added. ?You know the people that got the immediate gratification may know about it, but something as large as the floods has drawn wider attention to what we are doing. So I think it has helped the Haitian people see that the multi-national force has been a force for good here.?
Colonel Lapan said that most of the immediate relief work to help victims of the floods has now been completed and when the handover to U.N. authorities is complete only about a dozen U.S. troops will remain in Haiti as a small liaison force with the U.N. The rest of the nearly 2,000 U.S. Marines in Haiti, he says, will head to their next deployment in Iraq.