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Haiti leader moves towards restoring army
by Staff Writers
Port-Au-Prince (AFP) Nov 18, 2011

Haitian President Michel Martelly on Friday moved towards restoring the Caribbean nation's army, which was disbanded in the mid-1990s after decades of coups and political sway.

Martelly, a former pop singer who was sworn in as president in May vowing to end the instability and insecurity which has rocked his country, said he was setting up a commission to draw up a timetable for bringing back the army.

"The presidential order on nominating this commission will be published on Monday and the commission will have 40 days to prepare a plan to rehabilitate the army," Martelly said.

He said the controversial plan should be presented by January 1, which marks the date of the country's independence.

"From that moment on we can start to think about the withdrawal of UN troops," Martelly added, speaking at an official ceremony attended by politicians, diplomats and two former presidents.

He had been expected to announce on Friday the restoration of the army, but appeared to have delayed the announcement.

After decades of political interference and dozens of coups, Haiti's military was dissolved by then-president Jean-Bertrand Aristide after he returned to power in 1994.

But amid all the political turmoil the nation was scarred by brutal militias, which brought terror to the half-island under various leaders.

And since 2004 Haiti has relied on a UN stabilization mission, MINUSTAH, which was authorized to disarm and demobilize remaining militias.

Since coming to power, Martelly has made it clear he wants to see the UN forces -- currently at around 10,500 soldiers and police -- withdrawn from Haiti and has insisted his country needs a "modern" army.

But some observers say there are bigger priorities for the impoverished nation of nine million people, the poorest country in the Americas which is heavily dependent on foreign aid, then building a professional army.

Haiti is still struggling to recover from the January 2010 earthquake which destroyed much of the capital, Port-au-Prince, and killed more than 225,000.

"We have stressed to him (Martelly), that restoring the army is not the international community's priority, which is focused on rebuilding the country," said one diplomat, asking not to be named.

Opinion is also divided among Haitians on whether a new army is needed.

"Having an army is constitutional, but it is not the priority right now. And there's no question of rehabilitating the old army. We need to create a new army which supports democracy," said Socialist party politician Victoire Benoit.

"This will be more than just symbolic," argued Guy Philippe, a former officer in the disbanded Haitian Armed Forces. "The president wants to return the nation's sovereignty."

Martelly said Friday Haitians should not fear a new army.

"I want to reassure everyone, those who are involved and those who are opposed" that the army will be reformed "with an obligation to support democracy," he said.

"The aim is to re-think the Haitian army, to reconcile it with the people, with a modern democracy, to deploy an army for the 21st century, adapted to our real needs, and stripped of all repressive attributes and functions."

Contacted by telephone by AFP as he is wanted by US authorities on charges of drug-trafficking, Philippe agreed, saying: "We need a modern army... It's a promise, and he's going to keep it. The president won't let himself be intimidated."

Former sergeant Yves Jeudy, who heads a group of demobilized soldiers, said he did not "expect to see former troops called back to the barracks."

He has spent the last few months informally training young people, for whom joining the military would provide a wage in a country with 60 percent unemployment.

"These are our children, the sons of former soldiers. They don't have a military training, but they are ready to join the army once we begin recruiting," he told AFP.

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