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Security shortage seen before Haiti vote

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti -- International peacekeepers responsible for preventing violence during Tuesday's national election do not plan to protect some 10 percent of the approximately 800 polling centers across Haiti, including the most dangerous sites in the troubled capital, according to an internal Haitian police document.

A spokesman for the international force confirmed that the troops would not be deployed at every polling place, saying that there are not enough troops to be everywhere, especially in remote areas that are difficult to reach by vehicle. But he added that all sites would at least have a military police or Haitian National Police presence.

He said he could not detail, for security reasons, which polling centers would not have the on-site protection of the more heavily armed peacekeepers, a 7,500-member force from 21 countries dispatched to Haiti in mid-2004.

But according to the police memo, provided yesterday to the Globe, some 80 locations across the nation -- including ''all the hot spots" in Port-au-Prince -- will ''not be covered" by the peacekeepers, heightening security concerns among a population already complaining of escalating criminal activity. The memo was based on information from the peacekeeping force, according to the person who disclosed it.

The security troubles threaten to mar Haiti's long-awaited election, when Haitians will choose among 35 candidates for a president they hope will pull the nation out of decades of poverty and political instability. The polling has already been delayed several times because of violence and the difficulty of organizing the election, which is scheduled to replace an interim government that has ruled since former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide was ousted in February 2004.

One slum on the capital's outskirts, Cité Soleil, has become so dangerous that election officials have decided not to put polling stations in the neighborhood, forcing those who are still living there to travel outside the area to vote. Aid workers and locals believe many people have left the neighborhood in fear.

Locals in the poorer neighborhoods have long complained that the peacekeeping force, known by its French acronym MINUSTAH, does not act aggressively enough to protect citizens against the criminal violence, and many are worried that violence will escalate on election day.

''While all the action is going on, MINUSTAH just looks on and drives by. They don't intervene. That's the reason a lot of Haitians don't like MINUSTAH," Jean Robert, a 33-year-old musician, said yesterday in the Delmas neighborhood of the capital.

The spokesman for the peacekeepers, Damián Onses-Cardona, said the Brazilian-led international force has a solid plan for security on Tuesday, dividing areas into calm ''green" zones, potentially unstable ''yellow" zones, and more dangerous ''red" zones, and assessing the need for security at each place. Some of the polls will be protected only by Haitian police and military police, he said, but those forces will be able to communicate with peacekeepers, who can respond to a call for backup within 15 to 30 minutes.

''All of them will be secure. They are trained," Onses-Cardona said, referring to the local guards and police. He noted that voter registration has been going on for months without incident with the help of peacekeepers.

Security has been a growing concern as Haiti readies for its watershed vote. Haiti, the poorest nation in the Western hemisphere, is now run by an interim government widely derided by locals for being unable -- or unwilling -- to bring order.

In the months before Aristide's departure, politically motivated killings and other violence roiled Port-au-Prince. Since 2004, the violence has been largely criminal in nature.

Cité Soleil resembles a war zone, as armed gangs roam the streets shooting at one another. The peacekeeping force has lost eight soldiers so far in the violence. Kidnapping has become a constant threat, as the gangs seek ransom money to finance their operations.

In the Delmas section, some stores have installed bullet-proof glass and holes through which to point guns at intruders. The area's main grocery store, one of the cleanest and best-stocked in the city, has posted armed guards.

Isemonde Joseph, 30, grew up in Cité Soleil crammed into two rooms with her extended family. She recently achieved her dream of becoming a doctor, spending two years in the countryside and in Haiti's north to complete her studies. Now back in Port-au-Prince, Joseph had hoped to move back to her old neighborhood to provide desperately needed healthcare.

But with the shooting and kidnapping, ''I can't go," Joseph said, breaking down in tears as she described the scene there. ''I would like to help my community and I would like to help Cité Soleil. I don't know why my brothers are doing this," she added, referring to the crime by young men in the neighborhood.

Claude Parent, director of the International Commission for Monitoring Elections in Haiti, said election observers would skip some polling stations because of the danger. Armed gangs might be angry that the polling stations have been removed from Cité Soleil, an old stronghold of Aristide's, Parent said, and the criminals may make trouble even at neighboring polling places.

''There are some places we cannot go," he said. ''What do you want to do, risk lives?" he asked. If violence breaks out, he added, ''we will be the first to leave."

Haitians say they have lost patience with the government, the police, and the international troops who seem unable to rein in the criminal activity.

''The government is not doing anything. We get up in the morning and we don't know how the streets will be, who got kidnapped," said Jacques Sterlin, 58, who runs a cafe in the city center.

Sterlin, who was born in Haiti but spent his childhood in Westford, northwest of Boston, before moving back here 30 years ago, said the security situation was discouraging both foreign investors and even Haitian businessmen outside the capital from investing in projects that could provide needed jobs.

The day before, Sterlin said, someone was kidnapped and thrown into the trunk of a car up the street from his cafe -- and very near a small hotel where some international troops are staying. ''It's a free-for all," he said.

Berrette Alexis, 33, who is unemployed, said the police don't have the will or the weaponry to protect people. ''No one's safe now," he said.

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