Brazilian peacekeepers patrol slum streets of Haiti

Two white armored cars push deep inside Haiti's largest slum, the Brazilian U.N. peacekeepers peer over their rifles for enemy gunmen amid spray-painted slogans saying "Down with the U.N."

But the graffiti seems to be contradicted by the smiles and waves from gaunt women and children fetching water with plastic buckets.

Two months ago, U.N. peacekeepers couldn't set foot in Cite Soleil without waging gunbattles with armed gangs who controlled the seaside slum by Haiti's capital. "We used to take fire all the time," Lt. Jose Serrano told an Associated Press reporter accompanying the patrol he was leading.

Now his unit has gone more than 60 days without taking fire, and Cite Soleil is enjoying its most tranquil period since a 2004 revolt ousted former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide and led to the deployment of 9,000 U.N. peacekeepers.

The reason for the quiet, says the U.N., is its February offensive and the arrest of 400 suspected gang members, including several leaders wanted for a string of killings and kidnappings in Port-au-Prince.

The gangs, at least for now, are out of commission in Cite Soleil. A blue U.N. flag flies from a bullet-scarred school-turned-military base. A few days after Serrano's patrol passed through, U.N. special envoy Edmond Mulet made his second visit to the slum, and painted over a gang mural of a Kalashnikov rifle as onlookers cheered.

When Serrano was first deployed to Haiti in December, gunmen would fire at the tires of his armored car. No resident dared speak to the soldiers for fear of being labeled an informer.

"Now they actually look forward to seeing us. It's better for them, better for us," he said.

Alfred Jean-Daniel, an unemployed 24-year-old who lives in a shack made of scrap metal, said: "If the gangs come back, that will only bring problems, and we don't need any more problems."

But the peacekeepers aren't letting their guard down. A radio crackles and the armored cars screech to a stop. The soldiers spill out onto a dusty, sun-baked alley and creep block by block in search of gunmen. All they get is grins and quizzical stares from onlookers.

The peacekeepers' problem is to distinguish gang members from unemployed youths hanging out on street corners. "The bandits are still here," Serrano said. "They didn't all leave. It makes our job hard because we don't know who is a bandit and who isn't."

It's the same difficulty U.S. forces face in Iraq. Another Iraq parallel lies in the likelihood that if the peacekeepers leave too soon, the enemy will regain control.

"Previous experience has shown that if we leave too early, we have to come back again," Mulet said during his visit. "We'll stay here some time until everything is in place."

The U.N. mandate in Haiti expires in October, but the Security Council is certain to renew it. About 9,000 troops and civilian police officers from more than a dozen nations - mostly Jordan, Brazil, Bolivia, Sri Lanka, Guatemala and Chile - serve in the mission. Fifteen have died in Haiti, several of them in clashes with gangs.

Keeping the peace in the long run will depend on how fast foreign donors and Haiti's government can alleviate poverty. It's so severe that mothers feed their malnourished infants "cookies" made from sun-dried mud to stop their hunger pangs.

On Mulet's visit, peacekeepers passed out chili dogs and a soldier in an alligator suit entertained children.

"This is a great turning point in Haiti's history," the Guatemalan diplomat told AP. "This is only the beginning, to get rid of the gangs' leaders ... Now it is a matter of development and assistance to the population."

Dr. Jackie Saint-Fleur, the medical director at Cite Soleil's only functioning hospital, has seen gunshot victims slow to a trickle since the U.N. offensive. But he wonders how long the peace will last.

"Things are quiet now, but who knows whether that will change in a month or two?" he said.

"The origin of the violence in Cite Soleil is poverty," Saint-Fleur said. "If you want to end violence in Cite Soleil, you have to provide for the people."

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Author`s name Angela Antonova