PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti – Twenty armed men blocked a road and tried to hijack a convoy of food for earthquake victims, but were driven off by police gunfire, U.N. officials said Tuesday.
The attack on the convoy as it carried supplies from an airport in the southern town of Jeremie underscored what the United Nations calls a “potentially volatile” security situation as frustration has grown at the slow pace of aid since the Jan. 12 earthquake.
Most quake victims are still living outside in squalid tents of sheets and sticks and aid officials acknowedge they have not yet gotten food to the majority of those in need. Mobs have stolen food and looted goods from their neighbours in the camps, prompting many to band together or stay awake at night to prevent raids.
About 20 armed men blockaded a street Saturday and attacked a convoy carrying food from the airport in Jeremie, according to UN spokesman Vicenzo Pugliese. U.N. and Haitian officers fired warning gunshots and the men fled the scene, Pugliese said. No injuries were reported and no one was hurt.
Haitian police have increased their own patrols and are accompanying UN police guarding aid distribution.
“The overall security situation across the country remains stable but potentially volatile,” the UN mission said in a statement Tuesday.
In Jacmel, also a southern city, 33 escaped prisoners were apprehended Sunday, the U.N. said. Many prisoners escaped when prisons collapsed.
While Haitians are still mourning friends and relatives, many still unburied, anger at the government’s sluggish response to the quake is feeding political resentment.
Hundreds gathered Monday at a gravel pit in Titanyen where countless earthquake victims have been dumped, turning a remembrance ceremony for the dead into one of the first organized political rallies since the disaster.
Many denounced President Rene Preval and called for the return of ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.
“Preval has done nothing for this country, nothing for the victims,” said Jean Delcius, 54, who was bused to the memorial service by Aristide’s development foundation. “We need someone new to take charge here. If it’s not Aristide, then someone competent.”
Critics were already blaming Preval for rising unemployment, corruption and greed. Then the earthquake struck, flattening most government buildings and turning the capital into an apocalyptic vision of broken concrete and twisted steel.
Preval has rarely been seen in public since, leaving his ministers to defend his performance.
Haiti’s government also has had to deal with the 10 Americans who tried to take a busload of undocumented Haitian children out of the country. The Idaho-based church group was being held without charges at a police station on Tuesday as officials debated what to do with them.
Prime Minister Max Bellerive told The Associated Press that “what they were doing was wrong,” and said they could be prosecuted in the United States because Haiti’s shattered court system may not be able to cope with a trial.
“It is clear now that they were trying to cross the border without papers. It is clear now that some of the children have live parents,” Bellerive said. “And it is clear now that they knew what they were doing was wrong.”
U.S. Embassy officials would not say if a U.S. court process is possible.
Meanwhile, discontent with Preval appears to be growing, three weeks after the disaster.
“He came Saturday and then just left,” said Jude John Peter, 23, in a camp across from Haiti’s demolished National Palace, where some 2,000 people are crammed into tents. “He’s nowhere to be seen at first and then leaves when things get hot.”
Aristide also faced criticism during his presidency. The former slum priest had a huge grassroots following among Haiti’s poor but was ousted in 2004 as corruption and drug trafficking grew rampant and some of former supporters accused him of abandoning his early followers to line his own pockets.
Aristide has said that he would like to return from his exile in South Africa – a move that would add political instability to the post-quake chaos and likely face resistance from the international community.
Before legislative elections scheduled for Feb. 28 were postponed, Haiti’s presidentially appointed electoral council had excluded more than a dozen political parties from the next round of elections in 2011. Opposition groups accused the council of trying to help Preval’s Unity party win majorities in parliament so he could push through constitutional reforms and expand executive power.
The most prominent excluded party is Aristide’s former Lavalas party, which now plans more demonstrations. That will force thousands of American soldiers and U.N. peacekeepers to worry about containing political violence as well as providing relief.
Some who attended the memorial said they simply wanted new leadership. Voter discontent is a constant in impoverished Haiti, where for years after the dictatorship, some even claimed they wanted the return of Jean-Claude Duvalier, whose father, Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier, launched a 29-year family dynasty of terror.
Tens of thousands were killed by the Duvaliers – many of them also buried anonymously in the gravel fields of Titanyen.
Across the capital, Haitians have voiced anger over the hasty burials of earthquake victims.
Many Haitians believe that bodies must be properly buried and remembered by relatives and family so their spirits can pass on to heaven. In Voodoo, some believe that improper burials can trap spirits between two worlds.
The mourners on Monday gathered near a white metal cross erected on a mound of gravel that covered nameless bodies dropped into a pit by dump trucks. The corpse of a woman lay uncovered at the base of a nearby gravel pile.
One by one, people tied black pieces of cloth to the cross as a Catholic priest sprinkled the ground with holy water. A choir sang traditional Haitian hymns as religious leaders prayed for the dead.
“We’ve come here to bless these people, to bless this spot,” said the Rev. Patrick Joseph Neptune.
Meanwhile, others in the crowd planned another political rally for Tuesday.
“If Preval comes, we will kill him!” they shouted.
Associated Press Writers Frank Jordans contributed to this report from Geneva.