PORT-AU-PRINCE The top U.N. official in Haiti urged Haitians on Tuesday to turn in thousands of escaped criminals before they start trouble, but said the security situation in the quake-struck Caribbean nation is stable.
Haitian authorities say some 5,000 prisoners fled the National Penitentiary and other jails when a massive earthquake on January 12 triggered the collapse of hundreds of buildings in the capital, Port-au-Prince.
Most of the escapees are still believed to be on the loose and many retreated to Cite Soleil, the seaside slum they once ruled like warlords, toting weapons they likely took from prison guards during their flight.
"I can say the security situation in Port-au-Prince and all over the country is globally stable," Edmond Mulet, acting head of the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Haiti, said at a news conference.
"I'd like to make a call to the people to denounce the criminals who left the prisons," Mulet said. "They're on the street. We know they are reorganizing secretly. We have to look for them before they act."
Thousands of U.N. peacekeeping troops have been in Haiti since 2004 to aid Haiti's national police force with security. Thousands of U.S. troops have joined them since the quake.
Mulet called on Haitians to report escaped felons to police or peacekeepers.
Of the 3,000 inmates who escaped the National Penitentiary, many were gang members who ran drug- and weapons-trafficking operations in Cite Soleil, Haiti's largest slum where cinder-block homes still bear the bullet scars of battles between gangs and peacekeepers.
The restoration of peace to Cite Soleil had been one of President Rene Preval's undisputed achievements since taking office in 2006 and unrest there could undermine efforts to maintain security in the aftermath of the quake.
In the chaos that followed the temblor, which government officials say killed about 212,000 people, many judicial records may have been destroyed. There were few traces of remaining records in the National Penitentiary a few days after the quake, and evidence of fires in a cell.
Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive said on Tuesday that security is an area of concern with more than 1 million people living in the streets following the quake, but he believed it was under control despite the escapees.
"So far, Haiti is a secure country," Bellerive said.
(Editing by Vicki Allen)