GONAIVES, Haiti -- While desperately hungry flood victims wander the streets of Gonaives searching for help, tons of food aid is stacking up in a warehouse guarded by United Nations peacekeepers.
The repeated looting of relief trucks has made it difficult to get sacks of wheat, lentils, and other foodstuffs in the warehouse out to those who need it most, aid workers said. "The problem is not a lack of food. It's security and a lack of trucks," Ricardo Mena, an official of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, said yesterday.
About 1,500 tons of food remains in a warehouse run by the aid group CARE International and guarded by UN troops, CARE spokesman Rick Perera said.
Rebel fighters tried to deliver food aid and organize their own security patrols in Gonaives on Wednesday but were turned away by UN peacekeepers who said their weapons were not welcome in a city struggling to cope with massive devastation wrought by Tropical Storm Jeanne.
The peacekeepers sent back scores of armed rebels who came to Gonaives on Wednesday with three truckloads of food aid, said rebel leader Remissainthe Ravix, a former colonel in the disbanded Haitian Army.
"No foreigner has the right to tell us to put down our arms," Ravix said yesterday morning, after returning to the capital, Port-au-Prince. "Wherever security is needed, we'll be there." He protested that much of the food aid "isn't going to all the people."
But some residents are growing impatient with humanitarian groups, which are stretched thin as they cope with the aftermath of Jeanne, which left more than 1,500 people dead and about 900 missing, many of whom are presumed dead.
About 200,000 of Gonaives' 250,000 residents are homeless.
UN troops have fired shots in the air as well as smoke grenades to keep order while aid workers distribute food. Troops have dragged looters off trucks, some of them shouting back, "We're hungry!" Haiti's powerless police force says gangs are breaking into people's homes at night to steal food.
The UN has 750 peacekeepers in Gonaives and the entire force in Haiti numbers 3,000, well below the 8,000 vowed when it took over from US Marines in June.
Nearly two weeks after Jeanne flooded the northwestern city, the death toll had climbed above 1,550 with 900 more missing, many of them presumed dead.
About 20 fatigue-clad rebels drove into Gonaives before sunset Wednesday and were seen by an AP reporter confronting UN troops in front of the main international food aid warehouse belonging to CARE. The only visible weapons the rebels had were a rifle, a pistol, and a knife.
One rebel told peacekeepers the group had come "because you are not protecting people." The group told the peacekeepers they were there to provide security.
Ravix said the group later left as darkness fell over the city, where there is no electricity. But he said they may return.
The UN troops have said they do not care if rebels are in the city as long as they are not armed.
Another group of rebels succeeded in bringing in a truckload of food and took it to a warehouse, where the truck was mobbed and the aid looted, French police officer Didier Leisigne said yesterday.
Haiti's interim government said the looters seem to be inspired by street gangs for which the city is notorious -- some criminal, some allied with political parties.
"We believe the lootings are planned by gangs," Agriculture Minister Phillipe Mathieu told reporters Tuesday.
The Cannibal Army, a Gonaives street gang, rose up against the government of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in February, provoking a rebellion that quickly was joined by soldiers from the former Haitian Army that Aristide disbanded in 1995.
The rebels overran half the country in three weeks and Aristide fled the country -- under pressure with the United States and France demanding his resignation and refusing to send troops to his aid. US troops arrived as he departed but did little to disarm the rebels, who are demanding the reinstatement of the army.
Rebels have formed a party that Aristide supporters say aims to return power to a lighter-skinned elite that has become wealthy at the poor's expense.