New Haiti Govt Panel To Help Clear Army Camps

Published March 6, 2012 1:00AM (EST)

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (AP) — Haiti's government is trying to reclaim training camps, including an old military base, taken over by former soldiers calling for the restoration of the armed forces, President Michel Martelly said Monday.

Martelly didn't give a deadline for when the ex-soldiers need to leave the areas outside the capital but said a newly formed commission will be in touch with the former soldiers shortly and compensate those who were dismissed.

"This commission is going to have to work quickly to free these occupied spaces," he told reporters after a meeting with United Nations' top envoy in Haiti, Mariano Fernandez. Fernandez was supposed to attend the news conference but couldn't because he needed to catch a flight to New York, where he'll speak about Haiti on Thursday before the U.N. Security Council.

Dozens of former soldiers and their hopeful cohorts have stepped up pressure in recent weeks to urge Martelly to honor his campaign vow of restoring the army that was disbanded in 1995 because of its history of abuse. The motley group has demanded the force's return on local radio stations and paraded through the streets in old camouflaged uniforms and heavy boots, fueling concerns among some international officials that they could be used as private militias. Some members have been seen carrying handguns.

They are also requesting $15 million in lost wages and pensions.

The Associated Press first reported last March that the ex-soldiers were reorganizing outside Port-au-Prince. Led by dismissed officers, 150-plus volunteers donned military fatigues and conducted drills in the hopes of landing a spot in the military they want to see Martelly revive. Similar training camps sprung up in the capital and elsewhere in the countryside.

Martelly has said he's bent on bringing back the army even though Western governments believe money for the force should be used for the understaffed national police department. The U.N. Security Council has said the police department is the "best" body to provide security in Haiti.

On Monday, the Interior Ministry issued a statement saying those in possession of weapons and ammunition that belong to the disbanded army are required to turn them in within 15 days. On Saturday, the same office warned the former soldiers that they face up to two years in prison for continuing their work as soldiers even though they've been dismissed.

But efforts to clear out the sites could prove tricky.

One member of the group, Jean-Andre St. Louis, said that was there was only one way for them to vacate.

"For us to leave now, they have to bring back the army," St. Louis said by telephone.

The plan to clear out the former soldiers comes at a period of growing instability in the capital. Many Haitians are worried over what they see as a rise in violent crime in the capital.

By Salon Staff

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