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By Michael Christie
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (Reuters) - The northeast Haitian town of Fort Liberte lives up to its name for 150 murderers, rapists and thieves freed from the local jail. They run the place.
Three weeks after a multinational force landed in Haiti to restore order after President Jean-Bertrand Aristide was driven into exile by an armed revolt and U.S. pressure, lawlessness remains the rule in parts of the impoverished Caribbean nation.
Most of Fort Liberte, a small town on the pockmarked road to the Dominican Republic border from the northern port of Cap-Haitien, is in the hands of escaped convicts, the United Nations said on Tuesday. Stores are shuttered and the streets are empty.
"The town is virtually deserted. There is no market. Many houses have been burned. Prisoners control most parts of the city," said U.N. spokeswoman Elisabeth Byrs.
Far to the southwest, in the seaside town of Les Cayes, armed rebels who helped oust Haiti's first democratically elected leader carry out public executions, unchallenged by police or foreign troops.
In the main square every morning, they shoot accused thieves before an expectant crowd, according to reports sent to the United Nations from nongovernmental organizations
"There is no trial," Byrs said.
The 3,000-strong U.N.-sanctioned force, led by U.S. Marines and christened on Monday as "Operation Secure Tomorrow," has restored an uneasy calm to the bustling capital, Port-au-Prince, since landing on Feb. 29 -- hours after Aristide was flown out in the face of the monthlong revolt.
Late last week, French legionnaires began to deploy to the north, setting up base in Gonaives, where the rebellion began on Feb. 5, and Cap-Haitien, Haiti's second-largest city.
Skittish Marines, who have shot at least eight people, and Canadian troops are expected to spread out slowly to the south in coming weeks, U.S. military officials said.
Even where foreign peacekeepers have begun to patrol, bringing back the rule of law is proving a slow process.
SHARING SAME TURF
In Cap-Haitien, armed rebels, some still in stolen police gear or military fatigues, 200 French foreign legionnaires and a 50-member deployment of Haitian National Police share the same turf in a fragile detente.
Neither the French soldiers nor the police have taken any action to free Aristide supporters illegally detained by the rebels, or to confiscate weapons.
"There is a bit of tension between the military (the rebels) and the police, but there have been no shootings, nor any clashes," said Cap-Haitien's new police chief, Renan Etienne. "The French are patrolling the streets and things are getting normal."
Etienne, whose unit would have numbered up to 300 before the force disintegrated as the rebels advanced, said a shot had been fired at a building on Monday night, but it had not been aimed at anybody in particular. He had no further details.
U.S.-based rights group Human Rights Watch urged the U.S.-led force to fill the "security vacuum" quickly.
"It's been three weeks since the Multinational Interim Force arrived in Haiti, but the rule of law has yet to be re-established in the north," Joanne Mariner, deputy director of the group's Americas Division, said in a report on Monday. (Additional reporting by Ibon Villelabeitia in Port-au-Prince)