February 16, 2006

Joy greets Preval victory in violent Haiti slum

By Jim Loney

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (Reuters) - U.N. peacekeepers shed
their combat helmets and a gang leader talked peace in a burst
of revelry in Haiti's violent Cite Soleil slum following Rene
Preval's victory in the presidential election.

With poor residents caught in the cross-fire, the sprawling
seaside warren of flimsy shacks, open sewers and barefoot
children has been the flash point for months with armed gangs
loyal to Preval and deposed President Jean-Bertrand Aristide on
one side and Haitian police and U.N. troops on the other.

But on Thursday it was a scene of spontaneous celebration
after election officials, pressured by foreign diplomats,
settled the impoverished Caribbean nation's disputed February 7
vote and named Preval, a one-time Aristide ally and champion of
the poor, the winner.

Jordanian U.N. troops, usually holed up in a
sandbag-fortified headquarters or hidden away in menacing
armored personnel-carriers on patrol in the streets, took off
their helmets and let themselves be seen in what a commander
said was a reaction to "conditions in the streets."

Preval supporters poured into those streets in the dark --
the agreement was announced in the middle of the night -- in a
cacophony of honking car horns and beating drums.

"This gives us hope again," said Dorcely Jean-Claude, 39,
celebrating near the U.N. base. "Now there is no more

In the upscale suburb of Peguy-Ville, several hundred
revelers marched past the home of Preval's sister, where the
president-elect was sleeping, chanting "Preval is president,
Preval is president!" and dancing to a rara beat.


They carried two six-foot (two-meter) snakes, powerful
symbols in the voodoo religion practiced by about half of
Haiti's 8.5 million people.

"God sent Preval for us," one man shouted.

"Tell U.N. they can leave now, we have our president," a
woman said.

Cite Soleil, home to between 300,000 and 600,000 of Haiti's
poor, had been under siege as the turbulent capital was hit by
a wave of kidnappings and crime in the run-up to the election.

Gangs loyal to Aristide, accused of despotism and pushed
from office two years ago, said U.N. troops and Haitian police
were killing women, children and old people in the slum while
the interim authorities accused the gangs of trying to
destabilize the country.

The violence dropped sharply a week before the election
when the gangs called a ceasefire to allow voting to take place

Amaral Duclona, a leader of the well-armed gangs and one of
Haiti's most wanted men, said on Thursday that Preval's
election would probably end the violence.

"We want peace and we are not taking up weapons against
anybody in Cite Soleil," said Duclona, who roared through the
slum on a motorcycle without his usual complement of bodyguards
and did not appear to be carrying a weapon.

"We'll open the doors of Cite Soleil to anyone who wants to
help Cite Soleil out of its misery," he told Reuters. "We are
going to work with the government to save Cite Soleil."

But when asked whether the gangs would lay down their arms,
Duclona was more cautious than a fellow gang leader, Augudson
Nicolas, who said last week that the gangs would hand over
their weapons to Preval in a ceremony at the National Palace.

"The disarmament program should be done throughout the
country, not only within Cite Soleil," Duclona said, a
reference to the former soldiers and gangs who opposed Aristide
and still hold sway in parts of Haiti.

(Additional reporting by Joseph Guyler Delva)