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Kidnappings Threaten Haiti's Stability

A new rash of kidnappings has raised fears that well-armed, politically aligned street gangs are seeking to destabilize Haiti's new government, threatening U.N.-led efforts to restore security 2½ years after a crippling revolt.

But some say the gangs are simply after cash to buy more arms and fuel other criminal enterprises in the impoverished Caribbean country.

Most agree the problem seems to be getting worse. It reached a boiling point this week with people — including three Americans — being snatched by gunmen in an unprecedented series of bold, daylight attacks in the capital, Port-au-Prince.

Almost no one has been spared — missionaries, employees of foreign embassies and Haitians both rich and poor have fallen victim to the trend that has given Haiti the highest kidnapping rate in the Americas.

"We are beyond afraid," said Patrick Gadere, whose brother was abducted and who owns a ceramic tile factory that has been forced to close its warehouse because of violence. "We've been shot at, robbed, kidnapped. We have no other way to make a living."

The kidnapping surge destroyed a tense calm that prevailed since President Rene Preval took power in May, and prompted new criticism against the U.N. peacekeeping force sent to restore order after the 2004 revolt that toppled ex-president Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

At least 30 people have been kidnapped so far in July, about the same number for all of June, said Leslie Dallemand, chief of the U.N.'s anti-kidnapping unit in Haiti. The number is likely much higher because many families prefer to negotiate with kidnappers rather than notify police.

"I haven't had this high a volume since last year," when gangs went on a kidnapping spree before elections, Dallemand said.

Among the victims were three Americans, including two missionaries grabbed by gangsters on their way to church. All three were released unharmed Thursday after negotiations involving the FBI.

Charles Adams, a 70-year-old from Queensbury, N.Y., who was working on a water treatment program, was driving back from a meeting when a group of armed men ambushed his vehicle while stuck in traffic near the capital's international airport.

"All the sudden I looked up, doors were being ripped open and there were all these people with revolvers and long guns walking around. It was quite an awakening," said Adams, who was freed after a day in captivity without paying a ransom.

The abductions come amid sharply rising violence in the capital, including this month's slum massacre of 22 people. Police blamed the killings on warring gangs but have made no arrests.

U.N. and Haitian officials disagree on whether the recent violence is politically motivated.

The U.N. mission says the coordinated nature of the recent attacks suggest an attempt to stir chaos by the gangs, many of which are loyal to Aristide and are demanding his return from exile in South Africa.

"Their violence is motivated to draw attention to the government that they are dissatisfied," U.N. spokesman David Wimhurst said. "It obviously has a destabilizing effect."

But Preval insists the recent troubles are criminal not political.

Members of Preval's Lespwa party and the business community are calling on the 8,800-strong U.N. peacekeeping mission to take a harder line against gangs.

"This is the first time in our country's history that we've had so many armed forces and yet we're still in this mess," said Gadere, the tile factory owner.

U.N. and police officials say they're doing all they can and blame Haiti's notoriously corrupt justice system for releasing suspected kidnappers who can afford bribes.

"We can't keep criminals off the streets if the courts keep letting them go," police chief Mario Andresol said.

Kidnappings were once rare in Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. The trend flourished after Aristide's departure but leveled off shortly after February elections.

Foreigners have been particularly vulnerable, likely because they fetch a higher ransom, usually around $10,000, compared to about half that for a Haitian.

Last year, 43 Americans were kidnapped in Haiti, including three who were killed in attempted abductions, according to the U.S. Department of State's Bureau of Consular Affairs.

"We have agents down there almost constantly working kidnappings," said Judy Orihuela, an FBI special agent in Miami. "It's surpassed Colombia."