Gunfire broke out during a funeral procession Thursday for a popular Haitian priest, apparently killing a man and prompting angry protests that could inflame government opponents with days to go before elections in the troubled nation.
Marchers accused U.N. peacekeepers of shooting the unidentified man in the head during protests surrounding the funeral of the Rev. Gerard Jean-Juste, who was a close ally of exiled former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide.
Protesters are incensed by the presence of foreign troops on Haitian soil.
The U.N. peacekeeping mission in Haiti issued a statement late Thursday strongly denying involvement in the protester’s death. It cited unspecified preliminary information that the victim was killed by a blunt object, such as a thrown rock, rather than a bullet.
Witnesses at the scene said the man was shot in the head, and that protesters had thrown rocks at the U.N. troops. Associated Press reporters saw the man lying motionless in a pool of blood moments after the gunshots rang out.
U.N. mission spokeswoman Sophie Boutaud de la Combe told AP earlier that Brazilian peacekeepers fired at least seven warning shots to turn back aggressive members of the procession, and that the soldiers were ordered back to their base after the incident.
None of the protesters were seen holding guns and the killing took place on a busy thoroughfare intersected by multiple cross-streets and alleys.
The incident occured as about 2,000 people were carrying Jean-Juste’s flag-draped coffin to the presidential palace to protest President Rene Preval’s policies and his failure to bring Aristide back from South African exile.
Jean-Juste was a Roman Catholic priest known as an advocate for the poor, both in Haiti and in Miami, where he led the Haitian Refugee Center. Mourners sang pro-Aristide songs and slogans throughout the ceremony, which was officiated by Haiti’s archbishop.
Most of Jean-Juste’s mourners continued on to the palace gates, unaware that a protester had died. The casket was loaded into a hearse, to be carried to his birthplace in rural Cavaillon.
But as word of the shooting raced through the crowd, some mourners began smashing the windows of cars and buildings. Four men then carried the dead protester’s body to the palace, laying it onto the same spot where Jean-Juste’s casket had been minutes before, and screaming for Preval to resign.
“He was our brother, and they killed him,” said a sobbing man who said he saw the shooting occur.
Haitian riot police moved in with shields and batons to make way for a police ambulance to remove his body. U.N. peacekeepers stood by across the plaza.
The shooting follows four weeks of protests led by medical students against the elimination of some classes from school curriculum, in favor of an increase in Haiti’s minimum wage and against the 9,000-member U.N. force that has been in Haiti since Aristide’s departure in 2004.
On Wednesday, student protesters attacked and burned a U.N. police vehicle.
Student-led demonstrations have preceded several recent upheavals, including the 2004 rebellion that ousted Aristide and the 1986 overthrow of dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier.
Jean-Juste died in early June at a Miami-area hospital following complications from a stroke and respiratory problems. He was 62. He was known for fighting on behalf of migrants in Florida.
He later returned to Haiti and was arrested in 2005 on suspicion of playing a role in the kidnapping and slaying of a prominent Haitian journalist. He denied any involvement, noting he’d been in Miami at the time of the killing. International human rights groups called the charges politically motivated.
While he was in jail, Aristide’s party registered Jean-Juste as its candidate for president. But the party was not allowed to run in 2006, instead throwing its support behind Preval, who had been Aristide’s prime minister. Lavalas supporters now consider Preval a traitor for failing to return Aristide from his South African exile.
The government released Jean-Juste from prison in 2006, prompting his return to Miami. Charges against him were later dropped, and he visited Haiti often in recent years, leading some 3,000 people in the capital’s Cite Soleil slum in a rally for Aristide’s return last April.
Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.