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Haiti gang leader killed as transition council nears completion

FILE PHOTO: Alleged gang leader calls on supporters to retake control of neighborhood, in Port-au-Prince

By Harold Isaac and Ralph Tedy Erol

PORT-AU-PRINCE (Reuters) -Attacks, including a shooting that left a gang leader dead, flared in Haiti's capital, Port-au-Prince, on Thursday as political groups appeared nearer to finalizing a transition council to take over from an absent government.

A police operation killed the head of the Delmas 95 gang, Ernst Julme, known as Ti Greg, a day after another gang leader was killed in an apparent resurgence of vigilante justice, police and sources confirmed.

The death of Julme, a member of gang leader Jimmy "Barbeque" Cherizier's "Viv Ansanm" alliance, marks a setback for gangs' moves to take over more of the city. Julme had recently escaped from Haiti's largest prison in a mass jailbreak.

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres welcomed reports that political groups had selected all members of a transitional council that would take over presidential powers ahead of future elections, a U.N. spokesperson said.

The council, intended to bring together Haiti's fractured political class, is tasked with appointing a replacement to Prime Minister Ariel Henry, who announced his resignation on March 11 as gang violence prevented his return to the country.

"The Secretary-General welcomes reports that Haitian stakeholders have all nominated representatives to the Transitional Presidential Council," deputy spokesperson Farhan Haq said at a media briefing.

The transition plan was brokered in Jamaica by the intergovernmental Caribbean Community (CARICOM), alongside representatives of Haiti's government and opposition. CARICOM released a list of political groups that would be represented in the council.

The nine-member council had been expected to be finalized within a few days of Henry's resignation, but some Haitian political factions were unable to unite behind one representative.

One party rejected the plan, then backtracked, while groups left out of the plan criticized the return of politicians from previous administrations seen as corrupt.

Cherizier has threatened reprisals against politicians and their families if they take part in the proposed council.

CONFLICT IN SUBURBS

As the council seemed to near completion, heavy gunfire was heard on Thursday near the National Palace off the Champ de Mars square in downtown Port-au-Prince, while people fled shootings in the capital's Petion-Ville suburb.

On Wednesday suspected gang members in Petion-Ville, which has been under attack over recent days, were killed and set on fire - including one leader known as Makandal - in what appeared to be a resurgence of a civilian vigilante movement known as Bwa Kale.

Local media reported another Bwa Kale killing outside the capital on Thursday, though Reuters was unable to verify this.

The state has been largely absent during the violence and police are ill-equipped against heavily armed criminal groups seeking to expand their territorial control of the capital city. Plans for an international security mission, requested by Henry in 2022, remain on hold.

Haq said the international force's swift deployment was critical for the political and security situations to improve.

He said the U.N. would support restoring Haiti's democratic institutions and called for the protection of civilians.

The U.N. and other international bodies and embassies have been evacuating staff and other foreigners by helicopter because Haiti's main airport is not secure.

Canada's government said late on Thursday that the Canadian Armed Forces were working with the Canadian Embassy in Haiti to assist in contingency planning. It did not elaborate, but its statement came in response to reports that Canadian soldiers were flown in to protect the Canadian embassy.

The U.S. government on Thursday organized the departure of 90 U.S. citizens from Haiti's northern city of Cap-Haitien to Miami as well as from Port-au-Prince to the Dominican Republic, in addition to 70 it has flown out since Sunday, a State Department spokesperson said.

(Reporting by Sarah Morland in Mexico City and Ralph Tedy Erol and Harold Isaac in Port-au-Prince; Additional reporting by Daphne Psaledakis and Kanishka Singh in Washington; Editing by Nia Williams, Stephen Coates and Gerry Doyle)