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U.N. Peacekeeping More Assertive, Creating Risk for Civilians

By Colum Lynch
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 15, 2005

UNITED NATIONS -- On July 6, about 1,400 heavily armed U.N. peacekeepers from Brazil, Peru and Jordan, backed by Argentine and Chilean helicopters, marched into a Haitian slum for an early-morning raid on the home of Emmanuel "Dread" Wilme, a gang leader who was agitating for the return to power of former Haitian president Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

Operation Iron Fist killed Wilme and at least six other gang members, according to a confidential U.N. account of the raid. But the bloody gun battle between the U.N. forces and Wilme's followers failed to dislodge the gang from its Port-au-Prince slum turf and led to the injury of dozens of civilians, primarily women and children, according to U.N. officials and an American doctor who tended the wounded.

The 12-hour U.N. operation in Cité Soleil signaled an escalation of force in Haiti, where the Brazilian-led U.N. mission had been criticized for months by the United States and others for its failure to confront Haiti's armed gangs.

It also reflected a shift in tactics for U.N. peacekeeping troops, who by the mid-1990s were going out of their way to avoid combat. Now, the blue-helmeted troops are showing a renewed willingness to use considerable firepower against armed groups that they deem a threat to peace efforts.

"There has been a fundamental shift in peacekeeping that very few people have noticed, where U.N. peacekeepers are actually taking proactive, offensive preemptive action against threats," said Nancy Soderberg, a former U.S. ambassador who oversaw U.N. peacekeeping for the U.S. mission to the United Nations from 1997 to 2000. "The United States learned this when they invaded Haiti in 1994. Basically someone tried to attack them, [the Americans] blew them away and that was the end of that."

The United Nations largely retreated from offensive combat operations after the troubled U.N. operation in Somalia in the early 1990s, when a hunt for Somali warlord Mohamed Farah Aideed contributed to 113 U.N. combat deaths and raised questions about the capacity of peacekeepers to quash even ill-equipped armed factions. The confrontation also resulted in a disastrous U.S. raid on an Aideed stronghold in Mogadishu that left 18 U.S. soldiers dead and triggered a U.S. pull-back from U.N. peacekeeping.

More recently, the United Nations has used more aggressive offensive tactics in Haiti, Congo and Sierra Leone. In Congo, U.N. troops supported by Indian-piloted attack helicopters killed more than 50 rebels in a raid on a marketplace in March.

The fighting has received relatively scant attention at a time when U.S. forces are engaged in more extensive conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. But it has contributed to an increase in U.N. combat fatalities over the past two years. The death toll for U.N. peacekeepers increased from 64 deaths in 2003 to 91 in 2004. The count reached 64 in the first six months of this year. There have been 22 combat fatalities in Haiti and Congo, including nine Bangladeshi peacekeepers killed February in an ambush in Ituri, Congo.

Soderberg, now a vice president of the nonprofit International Crisis Group, said her organization has urged the Security Council to explicitly authorize peacekeepers in Congo to use force preemptively to counter possible threats from armed groups. But she said the United Nations will have to balance such assertiveness against the potential for civilians to become caught in crossfire.

The U.N. Stabilization Mission in Haiti was established in April 2004 to maintain peace after a U.S. military force withdrew from Haiti. U.S. forces had gone to Haiti to restore peace after armed opponents of the government launched an insurrection against President Aristide. The United States pressed Aristide to flee into exile or face likely death at the hands of the insurgents.

Confronted with violent opposition from Aristide loyalists, the U.N. mission has stepped up its military tactics in recent months to ensure stability in advance of elections.

Operation Iron Fist began at 4:30 a.m. as an advance unit of Peruvian peacekeepers slipped into the neighborhood of Bois Neuf in Cité Soleil to launch a surprise attack on Wilme's residence. But the force quickly encountered resistance from well-armed and -trained followers of Wilme, who opened fire from three directions. The Peruvians responded forcefully, blasting 5,500 rounds of ammunition, grenades and mortars at Wilme's residence.

A Brazilian mechanized company providing perimeter security for the Peruvians, meanwhile, was attacked by 30 to 40 gang members. Wilme's fighters pinned the U.N. peacekeepers down for seven hours, targeting them with sniper fire and Molotov cocktails as they struggled to extract two armored personnel carriers from the mud. Battling their way out, the Brazilians fired more than 16,700 rounds of ammunition in the densely populated neighborhood.

David Olson, an American physician who recently served in Haiti with the French medical agency Doctors Without Borders, said Operation Iron Fist caused "a lot of collateral damage." Olson said that 27 Haitians, mostly women and children, streamed into his clinic after the July 6 operation. Olson said that he could not establish who was responsible for the injuries, but he said that as many as half the victims said they had been wounded by the U.N. peacekeepers.

He said one woman in her 26th week of pregnancy suffered a bullet wound in her uterus that killed her baby. He recalled tending another woman who had been struck by a bullet that sliced through a wall in her home. "I asked her who shot her and she said, 'Minustah,' " a French acronym for the U.N. Stabilization Mission. "She was sitting in her house going about her day and got a bullet in the back."

The United Nations does not compile records on civilian deaths during peacekeeping operations, but the top peacekeeping official, Jean-Marie Guéhenno, conceded that "there may have been some civilian casualties" during the raid. "We have been looking very closely at those accusations," he said. There is no reliable tally of civilians or gang members killed.

A U.N. account of the operation concluded afterward that "the area remains under gang control. Security forces are still unable to enter into the inner areas of Cité Soleil or conduct foot patrols."

Still, Guéhenno said it was necessary to stand up to armed groups that threaten to undermine peacekeeping missions. But he said U.N. commanders had to strike a balance between engaging in all-out warfare and resorting to the passive military posture that characterized U.N. operations in Srebrenica, where Dutch peacekeepers stood down as Bosnian Serb troops killed thousands of unarmed civilians. "You don't want any Srebrenica, and you don't want Mogadishu," he said.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company