Friday, January 29, 2010

US soldiers halt violence between guards, looters

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (AP) - U.S. soldiers halted a violent confrontation Friday between looters and a private security guard who shot and killed one man inside an appliance store and appeared poised to shoot others.

The chaotic scene unfolded in front of several journalists in a commercial district of downtown Port-au-Prince that was largely destroyed by the Jan. 12 earthquake. Bands of young men have been scavenging through the debris for anything of value, occasionally battling Haitian police.

An Associated Press journalist witnessed dozens of men pry open a steel security gate of the appliance store, which was only slightly damaged in the quake. They crawled underneath the gate and began to cart away ovens, refrigerators and even an air conditioning unit from a wall before a private security guard arrived, firing an automatic pistol at the looters.

As the crowd fled, the guard, wearing a black polo shirt and a private security badge, shot and killed a young man fleeing up the stairs of the shop. He appeared to be about to shoot a boy but stopped after noticing journalists in the store.

Two more security guards, weapons drawn, came into the store and began detaining other looters hidden in a side room and upstairs. The guards began kicking and beating the men, who had been ordered to lie amid broken glass strewn across the floor.

About a dozen members of the U.S. Army's 82nd Airborne Division happened to be on patrol nearby and saw the commotion. They rushed up and quickly calmed the situation, shouting "Stop it!" and pulling the guards off the captives.

A crowd that had gathered outside cheered.

The stern-faced soldiers then called Haitian police officers, who took control of the captives.

American troops, part of a 20,000-strong U.S. military humanitarian mission in Haiti, have generally discouraged looting by warning people away from city shops. But usually that method works only briefly, as looters stop scavenging, some even waving American flags, while the troops are in sight, but then quickly go back to breaking into shops.

Although the U.S. mission has generally been peaceful, the incident underscored the tensions and growing frustrations among Haitians in the earthquake's aftermath - frustrations that could present a security challenge to the American military here.

Arresting people for looting is not part of the U.S. military's responsibilities in Haiti, said Jose Ruiz, a spokesman for the U.S. Southern Command, which oversees the Haiti humanitarian mission. "They are not there to participate in any police operations," he said.

The military does not disclose its broader rules of engagement. Ruiz said troops can provide security for relief operations but will work with the United Nations and the Haitian National Police on law enforcement issues.

He said he was not aware of the specific incident at the appliance store.

The security guard's identity wasn't known. His badge identified him as working for a company called Professional Security Services.

It wasn't known if he was arrested.



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