U.N. peacekeeping troops backed by tanks have launched a new operation in Haiti's capital of Port-au-Prince, to counter a new wave of violence by armed gangs and former army troops. The ongoing violence in the Caribbean nation is threatening to destabilize democratic elections planned for this November.
More than one year after a violent uprising forced former president Jean Bertrand Aristide into exile, the fragile Caribbean nation of Haiti continues to face an uphill battle for security.
The on-and-off violence between armed Aristide supporters and their rivals in Port-au-Prince has caused many casualties since Mr. Aristide left.
U.N. peacekeepers backed by tanks entered the seaside slum of Cite Soleil, in an effort Thursday to disperse armed gunmen. More than 1,000 U.N. peacekeepers are said to have taken part in the raid, which is expected to continue for a few days.
Officials said the operation is aimed at disarming violent street gangs and restoring order in the capital.
Since late September, downtown Port-au-Prince has become a battle ground. Clashes between pro-and anti-Aristide gangs, former military, police, and U.N. peacekeepers have claimed more than 400 lives.
Businesses in the capital have shut their doors, and many schools have been forced to close, leaving an estimated 30,000 children without an education.
During the past two weeks, violence has flared. Two U.N. peacekeepers were killed in military operations in mid March. A grenade exploded outside the national elections commission last Friday, and on Monday two police were shot and then burned, their charred remains lay in the street for most of the day.
Haitian national police have increasingly become the targets for attacks. More than 40 police officers have been killed in recent violence.
U.N. forces have been sharply criticized for their failure to respond to Haiti's deteriorating security situation.
Spokesman Damian Cardona says the U.N. mandate is to restore order without resorting to the use of force.
"Haiti is a difficult place, we are trying to do police work with the military, " the spokesman said. "Some of the operations could be effective if we went in, and I am going to exaggerate, if we entered with tanks into the slums of the city. But this is a disproportionate use of force and we are never going to do this. I would like to insist that this is not an occupation force, this is a peacekeeping force and that is why we have to be careful on the way that we act."
In a separate statement, the United Nations said peacekeepers are prepared to respond appropriately if they come under fire.
Haiti is struggling to prepare for elections in November. A spokesman from the Organization of American States says the violence is aimed at frustrating Haiti's political process. The organization says some progress has been made registering voters, but with presidential elections only six months away Haiti has yet to declare a single candidate.