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Posted Monday, August 4, 2006
                     
Haiti, U.N. to disarm gang members
                   
By STEVENSON JACOBS, Associated Press Writer

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti, Sept. 4, 2006 - Haiti's government and U.N. peacekeepers will launch a major campaign seeking to persuade hundreds of gangsters to disarm with promises of money, food and job training, but top gang leaders will not be eligible, the U.N. envoy said Monday.

edmond mulet 9-4-06.jpg (63083 bytes)
U.N. special envoy Edmond Mulet speaks during an interview with Associated Press at is office in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Monday,Sept. 4,2006. Mulet said Monday that Haiti's government and U.N. peacekeepers will launch a major campaign to disarm up to 1,000 gang members with promises of money, food and job training, but top gang leaders will not be eligible for the plan. (AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos)

In an exclusive interview with The Associated Press, special U.N. envoy Edmond Mulet said officials will begin airing radio and television ads in coming days to inform the public about the disarmament plan.

The move represents the most sweeping effort to persuade well-armed gangsters to lay down their weapons and rejoin society since U.N. troops arrived in the troubled Caribbean nation two years ago to restore order following a February 2004 revolt.

"We are ready to receive 1,000 armed people who would willingly give up their weapons and arms," Mulet said. "We have kits to provide for their families, food and economic assistance. The whole package is ready and we're going to bring that in place in the following days."

Last month, President Rene Preval warned gangs based in the sprawling slums of Port-au-Prince to disarm or face death.

The gangs, some of which are loyal to ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, are blamed for a recent surge of kidnappings and shootings that officials say are partly aimed at pressuring Preval to make concessions.

The initiative targets only rank-and-file gang members, Mulet said. Top gang leaders in the capital's volatile Cite Soleil slum have indicated a willingness to disarm, and the decision to leave them out sets up a potential showdown with the government.

"This is not for the big people responsible for human rights violence or criminal activities or killings or kidnappings. That we have to deal with in a different way," Mulet said in his office inside the fortified U.N. compound.

Top gang leaders in the capital's volatile Cite Soleil slum have indicated a willingness to disarm, but Mulet said the initiative will target low-ranking gang members.

"This is not for the big people responsible for human rights violence or criminal activities or killings or kidnappings. That we have to deal with in a different way," he said.

It will be up to a new, seven-member commission to decide who is eligible, Mulet said. Preval will appoint the commission this week in a presidential decree, Mulet said, adding that he expected its membership to include people "from all different sectors" of Haitian society.

Preval's office declined to comment.

Gang members participating in the program will receive ID cards entitling them to money, medical assistance, food for their families and training for manual-labor jobs such as construction workers, garbage collectors and farm workers, Mulet said.

Jobs are not plentiful in this Caribbean nation, which is the Western Hemisphere's poorest.

Mulet, a Guatemalan diplomat who took over leadership of the 8,800-soldier U.N. peacekeeping force three months ago, called the disarmament campaign a "long-term" plan and said it would provide a "big improvement" to Haiti's security if successful.

"We believe 500, 600, maybe 700 people are involved in this kind of illegal activities ... so I think if we're able to disarm most of them and include them into society and give them some training and assistance in this transition, that's going to be very positive."

The international community is desperate to stabilize Haiti after a decade of failed peacekeeping missions and fruitless efforts to disarm militants. A bid to take weapons off the streets after the 2004 revolt that toppled Aristide yielded mostly dilapidated guns held together by tape €” not the high-powered AK-47s and M-16 routinely used by gangs.

Mulet acknowledged the challenge but said "we have to try this." "This is not a traditional disarmament that you would see anywhere else in the world where you have a clear leadership or a subversive group or a military insurgency that you can make deals with.

This is more like a one-on-one approach. Each (gang member) has different motivations," he said.

One challenge will be gaining the support of Haiti's business community, which has taken a hard line on the gangs that it blames for driving foreign investment away from the deeply impoverished nation.

Mulet predicted business leaders would back the plan, saying they recognize the problem of gang activity. "Any measure to incorporate these people into society is more than welcome to them," he said.

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