PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti – Heavy gunfire rang out near Haiti's presidential palace Wednesday as Secretary of State Colin Powell (search) met with the country's interim leaders. Powell said international peacekeeping troops need to come down hard on street toughs and those who carry out political violence in Haiti.
"They have to forcefully take on those armed individuals of the kind who were firing this morning," Powell said after meetings at the National Palace with President Boniface Alexandre (search), Prime Minister Gerard Latortue and other political leaders.
After Powell wrapped up his one-day trip, shots continued to echo through the streets. Four people were killed and at least 11 were injured.
Bloodied gunshot victims crowded the corridors at the capital's main hospital, where U.N. police were standing guard. U.N. troops were also on alert at the national penitentiary, said Damian Onses Cardona, a spokesman for the U.N. force, now at more than 6,000 members.
Most of the clashes occurred in Bel Air, a slum loyal to ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide (search) and several blocks away from the National Palace.
Haiti is still beset with violence and political infighting as the one-year anniversary of Aristide's ouster approaches in February. The country's caretaker government has pledged open elections next fall, a goal Powell said Haiti (search) can meet with outside help.
"The only outcome that will satisfy the U.S. is an election next year that is free and fair, ... that is not fraudulent and stolen," Powell said later in his one-day trip to shore up democratic efforts in the desperately poor country.
The United States, and Powell in particular, have been instrumental in Haiti's chaotic power shifts over the past decade. Powell was once an Aristide supporter but helped arrange Aristide's exile this year.
"I'm deeply saddened the opportunity that was given to Mr. Aristide a decade ago was wasted," Powell said Wednesday. "But the Haitian people have a new opportunity."
Aristide and others claim the Bush administration coerced him to leave Haiti. Aristide's followers say Powell signed onto a plan to remove Aristide because he was viewed as a troublemaker whose unpopularity could destabilize the Caribbean country and cause a tide of refugees to head for U.S. shores.
The administration says Aristide departed voluntarily.
Gunshots, including several long bursts of automatic weapons fire, were heard in front of the palace shortly after Powell entered with a small U.S. delegation. A palace security official said a shot was fired from a passing car, and U.N. forces guarding the palace returned fire.
A palace security official said a shot was fired from a passing car, and U.N. forces guarding the palace returned fire.
Several U.N. tanks appeared a short while later and patrolled the palace front.
Shots were also fired at the U.S. Embassy, according to a U.N. official who spoke on condition of anonymity. Witnesses also reported shots being fired at the National Palace and the National Penitentiary late Wednesday afternoon. It was unclear who fired the shots.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Adam Ereli said Powell was in a holding room at the palace when shots were fired outside. Powell and others in his delegation heard the gunshots, Ereli said. The incident prompted a change of meeting rooms but otherwise had no effect on Powell's schedule or plans.
Despite the presence of Brazilian-led U.N. peacekeeping troops, rebels and former soldiers have refused to abandon police stations across the country. They have also refused to disarm, saying they need to stabilize Haiti until the government reinstates the military and the police hire more recruits.
The U.S.-backed interim government has accused Aristide of orchestrating recent political violence from exile in South Africa. Aristide has denied supporting violence.
At least 89 people have been killed in politically linked violence since Sept. 30, when pro-Aristide groups stepped up protests demanding his return.
Besides Alexandre and Latortue, Powell saw leaders from various civil and political groups in Haiti, including some who supported Aristide. He also met with young Haitians who receive and provide HIV and AIDS services.
Powell said the United States will spend $40 million on AIDS prevention and treatment in Haiti next year, double the current amount.
Wednesday's trip was likely to be Powell's last visit to Haiti as the United States' top diplomat. He announced last month that he would leave his post in President Bush's second term, and Bush nominated White House national security adviser Condoleezza Rice as his successor.
Powell also visited in April, five weeks after Aristide fled the country.