MIREBALAIS, Haiti – Nightly, camouflage-clad rebels patrol this central Haitian town, still armed and active five months after the rebellion that led to the ouster of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide (search).
Under international pressure, the new government has ordered factions to give up their guns in less than two months, but it has shown little willingness to confront ex-soldiers controlling parts of the countryside despite the presence of U.N. (search) peacekeepers.
The rebels, for their part, say no one can force them to disarm.
"We have no problem with (the peacekeepers), but they have no right to take our arms," said Fritz Pierre, who leads rebel foot patrols in this town of 10,000 people, 25 miles northeast of the capital.
Rebels have largely ignored a letter this month from the interim government saying armed groups have until Sept. 15 to turn in illegal weapons, after which police will make arrests.
The police force — trying to rebuild after the revolt that led to Aristide's Feb. 29 ouster — has been reluctant to confront rebels, as have leaders. Interim Prime Minister Gerard Latortue (search) praised rebels as "freedom fighters" after taking office in March.
Some police cooperate with rebels in patrolling and making arrests. About 50 rebels patrol Mirebalais. Similar squads have been reported in at least 11 central and northern towns.
Many rebels say they were once part of the army that ousted Aristide in 1991 and was disbanded after U.S. troops returned him to power in 1994. Now militants hope to become soldiers again if they can persuade leaders to reconstitute the army.
"The military is always the military. The president can dissolve it, but the constitution is still there, guaranteeing its presence," said Pierre, who patrols with other commandos clutching Uzi submachine guns. The former sergeant says he relies on residents for handouts of food.
Maj. Joseph Lesly Sanz, a member of a government panel that is trying to determine which men are truly ex-soldiers and entitled to pensions and benefits, said many of the militants were not ex-soldiers. He said those men were using stolen uniforms and guns.
Brazilian-led U.N. peacekeepers are armed, but it's unclear what role they may play in trying to rein in the few hundred rebels still in the island nation after the uprising, which killed an estimated 300 people.
Arriving for a five-day visit to Haiti on Saturday, the new U.N. mission chief, Juan Gabriel Valdes, said security would be a priority but made no mention of rebels or disarmament.
Col. Rodrigo Carrasco, commander of Chilean U.N. troops in northern Haiti said the peacekeepers were discussing disarming rebels but would not use force unnecessarily.
The rebels aren't supposed to be in uniform or bearing arms — "but they're doing it," Carrasco said. "Our role is to not use force unnecessarily, and they are doing nothing bad."
Others disagreed, accusing rebels of threats and attacks against supporters of Aristide, now in exile in South Africa.
Jeanty Andre Omillert, a Mirebalais radio journalist, went into hiding fearing for his life in June after being briefly detained by rebels who he said falsely accused him of robbery. He told an Associated Press reporter that he was in danger because "I wasn't on their side."
The National Coalition of Haitian Rights reports other abuses, including the beating death of a man in central Thomonde in March. Rebel commando Manel Valerus was arrested in the killing but escaped to neighboring Dominican Republic, said Viles Alizar, a monitor for the rights group.
While police and rebels often cooperate, relations are strained, Carrasco said.
Police and rebels in Mirebalais shared a police station until several days ago, when rebels abruptly moved to another building. Worried about rebels' intentions, police also left, allowing about 10 inmates to escape, police Chief Fog Petit Maitre said.
Rebels left because police seemed "ill-at-ease" with their presence, rebel commander Remissainthe Ravix said.
Militants say they help keep security because police, understaffed and outgunned by criminals, can't do it alone in the impoverished country. Critics say rebels have bloody pasts and seek a return to rule by intimidation and violence.