Many Haitians thought they had hit rock bottom in February, when former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide was forced from power amid an armed revolt fuelled by political conflict and economic collapse. But a new interim government has been unable to keep conditions from further deteriorating in the hemisphere's most poverty-stricken nation, despite the presence of a United Nations peacekeeping mission. Violence has racked Port-au-Prince since September 30, when several thousand Aristide supporters staged a demonstration that was broken up when police fired into the crowd. Since then, gunfire crackles through the city centre most days, and the streets are unusually silent at night; the capital's frightened residents hurry indoors at dusk. Haitian police and UN troops raid pro-Aristide slums, clashing with gangs of young men that have left dozens and possibly hundreds dead, many of them innocents caught in the crossfire. The recent violence has buffeted an already moribund economy. Rising prices and a devalued gourde have especially hit the poor. To make matters worse, Haiti has suffered two devastating natural disasters this year, with thousands dying in mudslides and floods. Tragically, the poorest nation in the hemisphere, where 65 per cent of the population live on less than one US dollar a day, is getting poorer. 'The government has done nothing in the areas of job creation, production, public works,' said Jean-Claude Paulvin, president of the Haitian Association of Economists. 'To their credit, they've only been there for eight months, and they've put most of their energy into getting help from the international community ... My concern is that if the political situation stays the same, if there is no security, the economy will not take off even with international aid.' Prime Minister Gerard Latortue has criticised the international community for not supplying sufficient troops and money fast enough to quell unrest and to revive the economy. The UN peacekeeping mission is just now approaching its full capacity of 6,700 soldiers and 1,622 police, more than six months after it began. But promises of international aid have proven largely empty until now. While UN vehicles and blue-helmeted soldiers are easily spotted on Port-au-Prince's main thoroughfares, few Haitians have seen the development and job creation heralded in the US$1 billion-plus aid plan announced by the international community in July. According to Hervey Sylvain, an official at the prime minister's office who is overseeing the implementation of the aid package, very little aid has been disbursed so far. 'We all think it could go faster than it has gone so far,' said Adama Guindo, the UN official in charge of overseeing development and humanitarian assistance in Haiti. Mr Latortue has blamed Aristide supporters and members of his Lavalas party with trying to destabilise the government. But party leaders say they are being persecuted to ensure they will not participate in elections slated for 2005. Some hardliners are calling for an even tougher stance. 'Shoot them and ask questions later,' said Jean Philippe Sassine, who is assistant mayor of Port-au-Prince, a charge appointed by Mr Latortue. 'Right now our country needs security. Unless you clean up the bad people, the gangs, there will be no progress. 'It will be a massacre, people will die. But let us do it or it will be worse.' For their part, former soldiers who control much of the countryside, and who have turned a Port-au-Prince apartment complex into a temporary military base, warn they will take matters into their own hands if the government does not allow them to wipe out the Aristide supporters. They are calling for the restoration of Haiti's military, a force known for its corruption and brutality that Aristide disbanded in 1995. 'If the government doesn't take responsibility, we will take it,' said former army sergeant Remissainthe Ravix. Government and UN officials have rebuffed such entreaties. At the same time, police and UN forces have avoided confronting the former soldiers - though they have led frequent raids on the slums in search of pro-Aristide gangs. Some observers say violence will continue until dialogue is established between those who support Aristide and those who oppose him. 'There is no solution to Haiti's problems without Aristide,' said Mark Bazin, a former World Bank economist who was Haiti's prime minister from 1992 to 1993. While many Lavalas leaders are either in jail or in exile, the party continues to command strong support from Haiti's poor, who say that, as bad as they might have been under the former president, they are worse off now. 'Things in this country have always been tough. Now, they're even tougher,' said Junior Joseph, 25, an artist.