Port-au-Prince, (Reuters) – Haitian authorities today announced the arrest of 59 uniformed former soldiers and several alleged supporters who staged a series of protests on Friday and yesterday calling for the return of the nation’s disbanded army.
The soldiers and their allies were charged with forming a rogue army and repeatedly violating government orders to remove their uniforms and lay down their weapons, officials said.
In 1995, President Jean-Bertrand Aristide dismantled the Haitian army, which had staged numerous coups and committed human rights abuses.
“They were parading outside the presidential palace in olive green military uniform and some were carrying weapons,” Michaelange Gedeon, police director for the West department, told Reuters.
Among those arrested were two Americans, identified as William Petrie and Steven Shaw, accused of providing training and logistics, authorities said.
Five vehicles and a number of weapons were confiscated, officials said.
In recent weeks, groups of former soldiers who were part of the dismantled Haitian army occupied government buildings and former military headquarters in several parts of the country. They were joined by scores of youths in their 20s and early 30s eager for jobs.
They were often seen armed and in military uniforms in the streets and sometimes directing traffic, fueling concerns of instability in a nation still struggling to recover from a catastrophic 2010 earthquake.
Haitian President Michel Martelly supports the idea of reconstituting the army and commissioned a study seeking recommendations.
Martelly has said Haitians would prefer to have their country protected by its own army rather than United Nations troops, who have acted as peacekeepers in the impoverished Caribbean nation on and off since 1994.
U.N. officials have expressed concern that restoring the army could undermine international efforts to train and equip a new civilian police force, a key goal of the U.N. mission in Haiti. Critics also point to the former army’s appalling human rights record, including a bloody coup in 1991.
Haitian Deputy Minister for Public Safety Reginald Delva said several specialized units of the police, supported by UN peacekeepers, were involved in the weekend raids.
“The government wants to launch a clear message to the ex-military and their allies. This practice of taking over government buildings and taking to the streets armed and in military uniforms is over,” Delva told Reuters.
“The instructions were clear and the police did a great job in making sure no one was killed during the raids.”
Haitian authorities said a camp, settled by ex-soldiers in the northern town of Cap-Haitien, was also evacuated. In several places the ex-soldiers and allies fled as the police arrived. Eight women were also arrested during the raids, which were conducted without any major casualties. A U.N. soldier was injured by rock-throwing protesters.