PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti – A band of former soldiers took over ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide's (search) former home early Wednesday and said they would use it to provide security in the neighborhood on the outskirts of the capital.
Dozens of ex-soldiers entered Aristide's abandoned compound before dawn, said former Sgt. Remissainthe Ravix, their spokesman.
Armed men wearing fatigues guarded the walled entrance of the estate as two men painted two big white pillars mustard yellow, the color of the Haitian military.
There were no U.N. peacekeepers or Haitian police at the scene, and their spokesmen could not be immediately reached for comment.
Some of the 50 former soldiers had pickaxes and were breaking cinder blocks that had sealed off doorways and windows. The plundered home had been abandoned since Aristide fled the country Feb. 29.
The ex-soldiers will use Aristide's former house in the suburb of Tabarre as a base of operations so "we can provide security to the population there," Ravix said.
Some of the men were carrying shovels and inspecting the rooms of the two-story house, littered with hundreds of history books and old photos of Aristide.
The ex-soldiers, whose previous base was in suburban Petionville, say that Haiti's ill-equipped police force is not able to provide security in the Caribbean country of 8 million people, and they have offered their services.
Ravix said Tabarre's mayor gave the house to the former soldiers, who led the three-week rebellion against Aristide that forced him to flee. The mayor could not be immediately reached for comment.
The rebels include members of the army, which Aristide disbanded in 1994. The ex-soldiers have grown increasingly frustrated with the government, which has yet to formally reinstate the army. They have refused to lay down their weapons and want back pay for 10 years.
They patrol some parts of the country, mostly in provincial towns, although human rights groups have complained they have no right to do so and represent a danger to stability.
Separately, a few dozen men marched in a seaside slum Wednesday to protest a major U.N. operation aimed at rooting out pro-Aristide gang members who have sown political violence since Sept. 30, leaving more than 100 dead. They called on the U.N. troops to leave and for Aristide to come back, chanting "Like it or not, Aristide must return!"
On Tuesday, hundreds of U.N. peacekeeping troops stormed the Cite Soleil (search) slum — an Aristide stronghold — in an attempt to control flashpoints of violence. At least four people were killed in separate incidents throughout the day.
Cite Soleil has been plagued by violence since September, when Aristide loyalists stepped up protests to demand his return.
Interim Prime Minister Gerard Latortue (search) has accused Aristide of orchestrating recent violence from exile in South Africa — a charge Aristide has denied. Aristide says the United Stated forced him to leave the country, a claim U.S. officials deny.
Neither the U.N. peacekeeping mission, which has 7,000 members in Haiti, nor the interim government have done much to disarm gangs or rebels who still control much of the countryside, patrolling towns and undermining police.