By Associated Press
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Protesters calling for the withdrawal of U.N. peacekeepers from Haiti clashed with police Wednesday outside the earthquake-damaged Haitian National Palace.
The protesters hurled rocks at Haitian police in riot gear as they wanted to see a withdrawal of the U.N. troops who have helped keep order in Haiti since 2004, when political violence engulfed the country. The officers responded by firing volleys of tear gas canisters toward the crowd of several hundred demonstrators.
As the crowd dispersed, many protesters fled into the Champs des Mars, the park that became a huge encampment of tents and shanties following the January 2010 earthquake, and camp residents rubbed lime on their nostrils in an effort to keep the stinging gas at bay.
Several local journalists told The Associated Press that two of their colleagues were beaten by riot police. One of the injured reporters was taken to the hospital for a broken bone in his right foot, the journalists and Haitian newspaper Le Matin reported.
Haitian National Police spokesman Frantz Lerebours told AP that he had no knowledge of the abuse allegations or had reports of other injuries.
But about two hours after the clashes began, a group of protesters in a university near the plaza carried out a young man to an ambulance; minutes before, protesters had lobbed rocks from the building and riot police had fired back with tear gas.
A passenger in the ambulance said the man had been cut by razor wire. Then the vehicle sped off as demonstrators pelted an oncoming riot police truck with stones.
Protesters said they were angry over the alleged sexual assault of an 18-year-old Haitian man by U.N. peacekeepers from Uruguay in the southwestern town of Port-Salut in July. They also expressed anger over a cholera outbreak likely introduced by a battalion from Nepal. The outbreak has killed more than 6,200 people since it surfaced last October, according to the Health Ministry.
“We are doing a peaceful march and asking for MINUSTAH to leave the country,” said protester Christo Junior Cadet, referring to the U.N. force by its French acronym.
The U.N. has 12,000 U.N. military and police personnel in Haiti but no peacekeepers were in sight as the protesters clashed with the Haitian police.
Haitian President Michel Martelly is expected to ask for a renewal of the U.N. mission’s mandate, which expires next month.
Martelly spokesman Lucien Jura told local radio stations on Wednesday that the leader understood why some Haitians would be offended with the presence of foreign troops in the country, a former French colony that secured its independence in 1804 through a successful slave revolt. But Jura also said that the soldiers were needed because a chronically weak national police force couldn’t provide security on its own.
“How can we ask the U.N. to leave when we have a police force that’s struggling?” Jura said. “They don’t have the means to do their work properly.”
The U.N. peacekeeping force has been a fixture in Haiti following a violent rebellion that ousted former President Jean Bertrand Aristide in 2004. The force in Haiti has been a target of complaints for years, but the criticism has increased in recent weeks after a cell phone video surfaced showing several U.N. soldiers holding down a young Haitian man. It was not immediately clear in the video what else the soldiers may have been doing.
The Wednesday protest came the same day the U.N. released a statement saying that Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon sent a trio of senior-ranking officials to Haiti to ensure that a “zero-tolerance” policy on misconduct is enforced.
The U.N., Haiti and Uruguay are investigating the abuse allegations.
Copyright 2011 The Associated Press