No policing role for U.S. troops in Haiti: Gates

ABOARD A U.S. MILITARY AIRCRAFT Mon Jan 18, 2010 4:37pm EST

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ABOARD A U.S. MILITARY AIRCRAFT (Reuters) - U.S. forces have not taken up a policing role in Haiti but do have the authority to protect "innocent Haitians" and themselves if necessary, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said on Monday.

The U.S. military expects to have around 10,000 troops in Haiti and in ships offshore by Monday for the massive relief effort.

Haitian President Rene Preval said on Sunday that U.S. troops will help U.N. peacekeepers keep order on Haiti's streets, where overstretched police and U.N. peacekeepers have been unable to provide full security.

In Port-au-Prince, the crippled capital, and environs U.S. troops protected food and water supplies being handed out as marauding looters emptied wrecked shops and tens of thousands of survivors waited desperately for food and medical care.

Gates told reporters on a flight to India there would be a security element to U.S. relief efforts, but added: "I haven't heard of us playing a policing role at any point."

Asked about rules of engagement, he said "as anywhere we deploy our troops, they have the authority and the right to defend themselves."

"And they also have the right to defend innocent Haitians and members of the international community if they see something happen," he said.

World leaders have promised massive amounts of assistance to rebuild Haiti since Tuesday's quake killed as many as 200,000 people and left Port-au-Prince.

"Until we can get ample supplies of food and water to people, there is a worry that in their desperation some will turn to violence. And we will work with the U.N. in trying to ensure that the security situation remains good," Gates said.

(Reporting by Phil Stewart, editing by Philip Barbara)

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