(Adds details on prior weapons transfer, paragraph 3, Haitian spokesman, paragraph 6)
By Joseph Guyler Delva
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti, June 8 (Reuters) - The United States is working on a plan that will allow Haiti to buy weapons as escalating violence threatens elections set for this year to replace ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the U.S. ambassador said on Wednesday.
Ambassador James Foley said the 4,000-strong Haitian police force was woefully short of weapons and equipment.
A 14-year-old arms embargo that the United States imposed on Haiti allows for exceptions. Last year, Washington donated around 2,600 handguns and 21 semiautomatic rifles and submachine guns to the Haitian police, according to State Department media guidance.
"Finally, the State Department and the U.S. Congress are now working on a supervision and training program that would allow the Haitian government to purchase weapons in the U.S.," Foley said.
"Those weapons are a very important element in the capacity of the Haitian police to ensure security," Foley said during a ceremony at which the U.S. Embassy donated 40 four-wheel-drive trucks, 75 motorcycles, two armored cars and police protective gear. The material is worth $2.6 million.
A spokesman for interim Haitian Prime Minister Gerard Latortue said money for a weapons purchase had already been deposited in a Florida bank and that Haitian authorities were simply waiting for a green light from Washington.
Some human rights groups, which have accused the Haitian police of summary executions and other violence against Aristide supporters, said selling the police weapons might fuel increased rights violations.
They also fear the guns could end up in the hands of gangs blamed for crime and political violence that has killed more than 700 people since September.
U.S. officials and the interim government generally blame the violence on Aristide supporters who are demanding his return from exile in South Africa.
They say the pro-Aristide militants want to disrupt U.N.-assisted legislative and presidential elections scheduled for October and November.
But Roger Noriega, U.S. assistant secretary of state for western hemisphere affairs, acknowledged on Tuesday that the situation was more complex.
"I think the preponderance of violence is opportunistic," Noriega said in Florida. "It's criminal gangs in many cases, there are narco-traffickers involved in this but, yes, some of it is political in that there are people who want to disrupt Haiti's democratic transition."
Noriega along with representatives from Canada, France and Brazil, which heads a 7,400-strong U.N. peacekeeping mission in Haiti, are visiting Haiti this week to assess the security environment in the run-up to the elections.
The elections are regarded as crucial for returning Haiti to democracy and stability after Aristide was ousted in February 2004 by an armed revolt. But voter registration has fallen far behind schedule.
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