GONAIVES, Haiti – Rebel fighters tried to deliver food aid and organize their own security patrols in Gonaives (search), but were turned away by U.N. peacekeepers who said their weapons weren't welcome in a city struggling to cope with massive devastation wrought by Hurricane Jeanne (search).
The peacekeepers sent back scores of rebels who came to Gonaives on Wednesday with three truckloads of food aid because they were armed, said rebel leader Remissainthe Ravix, a former colonel in the disbanded Haitian army.
"No foreigner has the right to tell us to put down our arms," Ravix said Thursday morning, after returning to the capital, Port-au-Prince. "We went there because wherever security is needed, we'll be there." He complained that much of the food aid "isn't going to all the people."
Nearly two weeks after Jeanne flooded the northwestern city, the death toll had climbed above 1,550 with another 900 missing, many of them presumed dead. An estimated 200,000 of the city's 250,000 residents are homeless. Hundreds remain hungry.
About 20 fatigue-clad rebels drove into Gonaives before sunset Wednesday and were seen by an Associated Press reporter confronting U.N. troops in front of the main international food aid warehouse belonging to CARE (search). The only visible weapons the rebels had were a rifle, a pistol and a knife.
One of the rebels told peacekeepers the group had come "because you are not protecting people." The group told the peacekeepers they were there to provide security and patrol the city.
Ravix said the group later left as darkness fell over the city, where there is no electricity. But he said they may return.
The U.N. troops have said they don't care if rebels are in the city as long as they're not armed.
Another group of rebels succeeded in bringing in a truckload of food and took it to a warehouse, where the truck was mobbed and the aid looted, French police officer Didier Leisigne said Thursday.
Haiti's U.S.-backed interim government said the looters appear to be inspired by street gangs for which the city is notorious — some criminal and some allied and armed by political parties.
"We believe the lootings are planned by gangs," Agriculture Minister Phillipe Mathieu told reporters on Tuesday.
Gonaives' Cannibal Army street gang rose up against the government of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide (search) in February, sparking a rebellion that quickly was joined by soldiers from the former Haitian army that Aristide disbanded in 1995.
The rebels overran half the country in three weeks and Aristide fled the country — under pressure with the United States and France demanding his resignation and refusing to send troops to his aid.
U.S. troops arrived as he departed but did little to disarm the rebels, who are demanding the reinstatement of the army and have friendly relations with the U.S.-installed interim government.
Rebels now have formed a political party which Aristide supporters — including a vast majority of Haiti's impoverished peasants and slum dwellers — say is aimed at returning power to a lighter skinned elite that has become wealthy on the backs of Haiti's poor.
There were some signs of recovery on Thursday. Markets began bustling with vendors selling fruit and vegetables.
The storm ravaged an estimated 24,700 acres of the most fertile land in Haiti, with mud covering the area that produces up to 40 percent of the bananas, beans and sweet potatoes consumed in the country, according to agronomist Jean-Andre Victor.
"If Haitian-international cooperation is slow to respond (to farmers' needs), there is risk of famine in those regions," Victor warned.
The United Nations is launching an appeal for $30 million in emergency aid for Haiti, UNICEF executive director Carol Bellamy said Wednesday after touring Gonaives.