MONTEVIDEO, Uruguay (AP) — Foreign ministers and defense chiefs from the Latin American countries that have more than 12,000 peacekeepers in Haiti called a meeting Thursday to consider how the alleged sex abuse of a Haitian teenager by Uruguayan sailors might affect the future of the U.N. mission.
Brazil has made public its wish to reduce its forces ahead of an eventual withdrawal, and Uruguayan President Jose Mujica seconded that idea ahead of the meeting in Montevideo.
"We are not in Haiti to retire there," Mujica said Wednesday after he offered apologies to the people of Haiti over the alleged sex abuse case.
Uruguay's commitment was to lend a hand and help form an internal security force so the Haitians can take care of themselves, the president said when questioned by reporters at an education summit.
Mujica said he had not yet received a response to his letter to Haitian President Michel Martelly apologizing for the episode.
The incident became public last week after several Haitians spotted a sailor's cellphone video showing the man being held face-down inside a U.N. base at Port-Salut and repeatedly shouting "no problem" as laughing peacekeepers threatened to rape him. A spokesman for the Uruguayan defense ministry was reprimanded for dismissing the event as a "bad joke."
Mujica said Wednesday that "between soldiers there's always a certain amount of horseplay — it's inevitable." But he added that the point of view of both sides in such incidents must be taken into account, in particular "the weakest," meaning the Haitians.
Martelly condemned the alleged assault of the young Haitian as an "act that revolts the national conscience."
It certainly hasn't helped the reputation of the peacekeeping force, which is viewed by many Haitians as an occupying force. Many are still angry over a deadly cholera outbreak that appears to have been brought inadvertently to the country by Nepalese troops last year. Politicians have stoked this outrage.
Eric Jean-Baptiste, a former mayoral candidate and owner of a lottery company, cut a check for $2,500 so that the alleged victim can pay for a lawyer. Jean-Baptiste's face and name have appeared on newly built billboards in the Haitian capital and Port-Salut denouncing the United Nations and cholera as "twins."
Jean-Baptiste also led several hundred protesters outside the U.N. base in Port-Salut on Monday to call for the U.N. mission's departure. He was joined by Youri Latortue, an influential senator who represents the Artibonite, a western department in which Haiti's cholera cases were first documented.
"We know that while there is justifiable outrage, there are also some who would use this for political ends," Nigel Fisher, U.N. deputy envoy in Haiti, told The Associated Press.
Mujica's signed letter to Martelly said he feels personally ashamed and promised maximum penalties for those responsible.
Associated Press writer Trenton Daniel in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, contributed to this report.