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Wave of violence unsettles Haitians

With an election just two weeks away, Haiti is confronting another outburst of violence. The unsolved attacks have shaken confidence in the new, American-trained National Police and in the ability of President Rene Preval's government to provide security for the increasingly frustrated and fearful population.

Since mid-February, more than 50 people have been killed in incidents whose origins remain unclear. Six police officers are among the dead, along with the security chief for the Ministry of Justice, a well-known businessman and the chauffeur of a senator who was himself wounded.

The violence began with battles between rival gangs of drug dealers and traffickers in Cite Soleil, a sprawling slum in Port-au-Prince with more than 200,000 residents. At least 18 people were killed in those clashes, which have been followed by attacks by armed gunmen in more upscale areas and by incidents in which police have killed innocent bystanders or people fleeing crime scenes.

"Is the climate of insecurity becoming a climate of terror?" the newspaper Le Nouvelliste asked in an editorial. "The specter of Haiti turning into a sort of Somalia has shown itself to be a real possibility."

There have also been complaints that the U.N. mission here, greatly reduced in size since 23,000 American troops restored Jean-Bertrand Aristide, Preval's predecessor, to power in October 1994, is not doing enough. The mission continues to provide "technical support" and training to Haitian police. U.N. officials have urged calm and say that some of the concerns are exaggerated.

"We're going through a bad patch right now," Enrique ter Horst, director of the U.N. mission in Haiti, acknowledged in an interview. But he described the situation as "exceptional and temporary," saying "there is no doubt that political stability is not in danger" and calling for "a sense of perspective."

As is often the case, it is not clear whether the attacks are for political reasons, are ordinary crimes or are a mixture of the two. "It is hard to explain the spikes of violence," said American Ambassador William Swing.

Swing suggested "a good deal of it reflects the economy," which has failed to provide jobs or the growth people expected after Aristide's return to power. Haitian officials have also cited Senate and municipal elections April 6, which they say have set off partisan disputes in the countryside.