PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Gunfire broke out last Thursday during a funeral procession for a popular Haitian priest, killing a man and prompting angry protests that observers feared would inflame government opponents days 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. Gérard Jean-Juste, who was a close ally of exiled former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide.
The protesters are incensed by the presence of foreign troops on Haitian soil. U.N. peacekeeping spokeswoman Sophie Boutaud de la Combe said the shooting was under investigation and that an autopsy would be quickly carried out.
There has been no evidence produced that would definitively prove who shot the man. None of the protesters were seen holding guns and the shooting took place on a busy thoroughfare intersected by multiple cross-streets and alleys.
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.
The shooting happened as about 2,000 people were carrying Jean-Juste’s flag-draped coffin to the presidential palace to protest President Rene Préval’s policies and his failure to bring Aristide back from South African exile.
Witnesses said some marchers had thrown rocks at Brazilian U.N. peacekeepers shortly before gunshots rang out, causing a panic and leaving one marcher dead. Associated Press reporters saw the man laying dead in a pool of blood with a gunshot wound to the head.
“He was our brother, and they killed him,” said a sobbing man who said he saw the shooting.
Most of Jean-Juste’s mourners continued on to the palace gates, unaware of the death at first. 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 Préval to resign.
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 followed 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.
Last 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 Préval, who had been Aristide’s prime minister. Lavalas supporters now consider Préval 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.
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