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Diplomats push for progress on Haiti transition as death toll mounts

A man reacts next to the charred remains of vehicles near the presidential palace, after they were set on fire by gangs, in Port-au-Prince

By Sarah Morland

(Reuters) - Diplomats at a regional Americas body on Wednesday urged Haitian politicians to move forward with a delayed plan to replace Prime Minister Ariel Henry with a transitional council, a move which could trigger the long-awaited deployment of an international security force.

The transitional council - agreed with the mediation of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) bloc - has been delayed for over three weeks amid factional infighting over who should be on it and what their powers should be. Haiti's de facto government says it is examining constitutional concerns that have been raised but is working as fast as possible.

"We acknowledge that the agreement has not found favor amongst all, but currently it presents one of the best opportunities to move the country forward," said Samuel Hinds, ambassador to the Organization of American States (OAS) from Guyana, the current CARICOM leader.

"CARICOM's aim is not to impose a solution on the Haitian people but to advance discussions," Hinds added, saying the transition plan's implementation marked a "significant opportunity" for rebuilding trust and could help pave the way for foreign troops to help police restore order.

Henry first requested an international force to help police fight powerful armed gangs in 2022 and the United Nations later ratified a Kenyan-led deployment. But Nairobi put that on hold when Henry announced his resignation on March 11, pending the establishment of a new government.

Some Haiti military and civil associations have called for an alternative transition method, such as choosing a provisional president from Haiti's Supreme Court judges.

Opponents charge that is a move by Henry's allies to retain power and say it is delaying the process while the death toll mounts. Most of the court's judges were appointed by Henry.

Frank Mora, the U.S. ambassador to the Washington-based OAS, reiterated his country's "unwavering support" to the security mission and urged all stakeholders to respect the transition council plan and Henry's commitment to resign once his replacement is appointed.

The U.S. has not pledged troops but has vowed the largest financial backing of the mission, though lawmakers have blocked much of these funds. As of mid-March, less than $11 million, from France and Canada, had been deposited in the U.N.'s dedicated fund.

Meanwhile, Haiti's capital has been in a state of virtual anarchy for weeks as gangs lay siege to areas they do not yet control. The national palace has been attacked multiple times, and the international airport and ports are blocked, worsening deadly food and medical shortages.

"One more day is one too many. It is time to act," said Haiti's OAS ambassador Gandy Thomas, urging an immediate international response. "It is no exaggeration that armed gangs' grip on the country is almost total."

OAS diplomats approved a resolution declaring support for the transition plan and for the security mission, but did not mandate specific contributions or funding to the country's cash-strapped humanitarian groups.

The U.N. estimates at least 1,500 have been killed in the first three months of this year, as gang violence already deemed catastrophic last year escalated in the political vacuum.

(Reporting by Sarah Morland, Editing by Rosalba O'Brien)