(IPS) WASHINGTON -- Amid growing violence in Haiti's capital Port-au-Prince, the United States announced Oct. 19 it will consider requests to sell weapons to the country's interim government on a case-by-case basis, signalling the end to a 13-year arms embargo.
The decision, confirmed by the State Department, appears designed to begin supplying weapons to the 2,500-man police force that has carried out gun battles with militants loyal to ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who was flown by the U.S. into exile earlier this year.
The police, however, have also been accused of firing on peaceful pro-Aristide demonstrators and rounding up well-known leaders of Aristide's political movement, Lavalas.
Human rights group Amnesty International (AI) on Tuesday denounced last week's arrest of the Reverend Gerard Jean-Juste while the priest was distributing food to hundreds of children and poor people at a church in a Port-au-Prince suburb.
According to testimony gathered by the London-based group, Jean-Juste was punched while being dragged out of the presbytery by police officers, some of who were wearing masks.
The police later said the arrest was a pre-emptive action based on intelligence that the priest was linked to pro-Aristide gangs, although no evidence to support that charge has been released.
"Amnesty International considers that if the arrest is politically motivated for Rev Jean-Juste being a vocal supporter of former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide, Amnesty International would consider him a prisoner of conscience," said the organization in a statement.
The rise in tensions in the Caribbean nation began in September after Hurricane Jeanne devastated the port town of Gonaives, Haiti's third-largest city, killing as many as 2,000 people and destroying hundreds of homes and businesses.
The interim government of Prime Minister Gerard Latortue, which took power with the help of U.S. Marines and French troops after Aristide's ouster, failed to coordinate or provide much help to the stranded population, fuelling popular discontent with the regime, particularly among the poorest sectors that have long supported Aristide.
Pro-Aristide demonstrations broke out on Sept. 30, the 13th anniversary of the military coup that exiled the leader the first time in 1991. Aristide, the first democratically elected president in Haiti's history, is now living in South Africa.
At least two protestors were killed by police Sept. 30. The following day, the remains of three policemen who had been beheaded were found on the street, bringing tensions in the capital to a boil. Some 50 people have since been killed in sporadic violence.
Since the anniversary, the situation in the capital has been unsettled, while former soldiers and military officers who led an insurrection against Aristide last winter and who still control much of the countryside, announced they intend to move to the capital to back the police against pro-Aristide gangs and militants.
The former soldiers have pressed the government to restore the army, which was abolished by Aristide after his return from exile in 1994.
The result is a growing sense of chaos in Haiti, according to Professor Robert Fatton, a Haiti expert at the University of Virginia, who described the situation as "very explosive."
"What's going on now is that the Latortue government is losing control of the situation," he said in an interview.
"The armed insurgents who opposed Aristide are increasingly taking centre stage in the political situation, which will probably spell significant trouble for the country. They literally want to go into Cite Soleil (the capital's poorest neighbourhood) and try to repress that segment of the population that continues to support Aristide."
Last week Washington accused Aristide supporters of promoting violence against the regime, and over the weekend Latortue himself accused South African President Minister Thabo Mbeki of "not respecting international law" by permitting Aristide to rally his supporters from South African territory.
Mbeki's spokesman rejected the charge with "contempt," noting that the South African president "cannot be used as a scapegoat for failure by the interim Haitian authorities to bring about peace and stability."
Jim Morrell, director of the Haiti Democracy Project (HDP), a lobby group closely tied to the Latortue government, also charged that Aristide was inciting his supporters.
"We know Lavalas leaders are in touch with Aristide over the phone, but we don't claim to know the contents of those conversations," he said. Morrell called for the 3,000-man United Nations peacekeeping force now in Haiti to be reinforced and "get pro-active, because if it doesn't, a growing part of the Haitian people will look on the damned army as their salvation."
"As bad as is the memory of the army years," added Morrell, "it's even worse now with Lavalas gangs in the streets."
The UN force, which took over from U.S. and French forces in July, is currently only at less than half strength.
But Fatton said neither more troops nor renewed U.S. aid to the police is likely to resolve the situation, particularly given the failure of the government to take a more conciliatory attitude toward Lavalas, which most observers believe remains the most popular political movement in the country.
"The UN could send more troops, but that's not really the problem," he said. "There has to be some sort of real, meaningful dialogue between the different sectors in Haiti, particularly Lavalas. The growing and very explosive polarisation, with the former army entering the scene and the government lacking the means or the will to curb it, spells big trouble."
Fatton also accused the government of using Aristide as a scapegoat for its own failures.
"They want to portray him as completely unpopular and yet blame him for paralyzing Port-au-Prince; they're trying to find a way to explain that the country is falling apart and they are not responsible, so they arrest Lavalas leaders, some of whom could not possibly be involved with violence."
Washington imposed an arms embargo against Haiti after the coup against Aristide in 1991, although it helped equip and train the police force created after the United States restored Aristide to power in 1994.
The State Department said Tuesday it would consider requests for arms from the Latortue government on a case-by-case basis.
Fatton said the situation, particularly the increasingly desperate plight of the tens of thousands of people in Gonaives, could result soon in a new exodus of Haitian "boat people," something Morrell also said was quite possible.
Both analysts stressed that the Bush administration was hoping "to keep the lid on" both the violence and any chance that thousands of Haitians would take to the sea, and was unlikely to do much more pending the Nov. 2 presidential election.
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