US Shifts Haiti 'Rescue' to UN But Criminals 'Claim the Night'

AT a ceremony here today, President Clinton plans to pass over to UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali the responsibility of helping to put Haiti back together again.

The handoff, coming six months after the United States military landed on the island, marks an initial success for Mr. Clinton's foreign policy.

President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the US, and the United Nations, agree that the threat of a coup d'etat has been neutralized, and the groundwork for the transition to 6,900 UN troops -- a safe and secure environment -- has been laid.

But that plan is being rattled by escalating crime and political violence here that is leaving the Haitian people on edge and agitating tensions among the US, UN, and Haitian government.

Last weekend, arsonists set fire to the Superior Court of Auditors and Administrative Disputes. The government department is responsible for clearing the accounts of former government employees who want to participate in the upcoming legislative elections scheduled for June.

And on Tuesday, a well-known lawyer and opponent of the Aristide government, Mireille Durocher Bertin, was killed. ''This was a very sophisticated murder,'' says a foreign diplomat. ''There is a group of people out there ... desperate to maintain the status quo, at any expense.''

The assassination is the latest in a series of recent political killings in Haiti. A member of the Chamber of Deputies and a driver for the leader of the Papaye Peasant Movement were also killed.

''One can't draw the conclusion that the insecurity [in Haiti] is related to politics,'' said Colin Granderson, director of the UN Civilian Mission, which monitors human rights here. ''But in the Haitian context, insecurity has always been seen as a way to destabilize the government.''

Despite the killings, President Aristide insisted Wednesday that Haiti was safe enough for the transfer to UN forces. He also stressed a need to disarm criminals.

During their six months here, US forces (which included some troops from 35 nations) collected more than 30,000 weapons. Lakdhar Brahimi, who heads up the UN forces, says tens of thousands of weapons are still at large -- and are thought to be in the hands of Aristide opponents, including soldiers who participated in the 1991 coup.

''The international community talked ourselves into thinking it is a safe and secure environment just to reassure Brahimi,'' said a foreign adviser to the Aristide government. ''The US has intelligence here, they must know there's insecurity, but they are saying things are okay.

''But things aren't going as planned. There is a lot of insecurity, and criminals are claiming the night for themselves,'' he adds.

Referring to the makeup of UN troops from such countries as Bangladesh and Nepal, one foreign diplomat remarked that criminals in Haiti ''will take these guys to the cleaners.''

But the UN maintains the transition will be peaceful and ''seamless,'' and that their troops will be able to continue with the work started by the US, including police work. ''The civilian police will be working with cadets to refine their police techniques as they take on the responsibility of what a real police force is all about,'' says Gen. Joseph Kinzer, a UN commander.

Some US soldiers packing up to leave are expressing anxiety about what they are leaving behind. ''After we're gone, I'm not sure what comes next for the Haitian people,'' says one lieutenant on his way to Hawaii. ''It's possible things will revert back to what they were before we got here.''

''I've noticed a change even in the three short months since I've been here,'' says another officer. ''At first, people were happy to see us -- when we'd drive by they'd move out of the way and cheer us on. They don't do that now -- they don't even look at us.''

Many Haitians claim US troops did little to disarm criminals and help rebuild their country. The international community has pledged $1.2 billion for rebuilding Haiti, but government officials say that they will be fortunate to see even half that money by June.

In addition to controlling crime, Haiti needs a functioning judicial system and economic activity to sustain itself. But judicial reform is slow, and employment remains appallingly low. The number of employed factory workers has plummeted from 35,000 before the coup to 5,000 today.

And murders such as Durocher Bertin's send a message to foreign investors. Any incident that smacks of political instability can dissuade anxious businessmen from investing in Haiti's business sector.

Complicating matters has been Mr. Aristide's unwillingness to handle crime the way the US wants him to, says one foreign observer. He gives the example of Aristide's call to the Haitian people to form vigilance brigades to control crime -- something he compared to neighborhood watch groups. The US says it was a call for mob violence.

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