Militants pledge to repel police in Haitian city

Saturday, February 7, 2004

GONAIVES, Haiti -- Thousands of protesters yelling "Aristide must go!" vowed Friday to repel any attempt to retake control of Haiti's fourth-largest city, a day after it was seized by armed militants in a revolt against the government of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Hundreds of people looted a police station still smoldering from Thursday's bloody assault, in which at least seven people were killed and 20 wounded. Some 200,000 people live in Gonaives and its suburbs. "The revolution has begun!" declared Dormessan Philippe, a 27-year-old in the crowd milling outside the police station. The militants said they aim to seize other towns. The neighboring Dominican Republic, which shares the Caribbean island of Hispaniola with Haiti, has ordered its military to tighten security along the border in recent days.

Discontent has grown among Haiti's 8 million people since Aristide's party swept flawed legislative elections in 2000 and international donors froze millions of dollars in aid. At least 58 people have been killed since mid-September in clashes between police, government opponents and Aristide supporters.

On Friday, thousands marched on the main highway leading to Gonaives, chanting "Victory!" and "Aristide must go! Too much blood has flowed!" Some rode in a looted police truck, flaunting stolen police uniforms and weapons.

The gunmen attacked symbols of Aristide's authority, burning the house of Mayor Stephan Moise and a gas station and small inn that he owned. Flames also gutted offices of the central government's representative.

The dead included three police and four civilians, according to the Haitian Red Cross. The four were militants killed in gunbattles with police, Gonaives Resistance Front leader Wynter Etienne told Radio Vision 2000.

Parts of a dismembered policeman killed during a five-hour battle with gunmen remained in the jail adjoining the police station, which Etienne's group set ablaze.

One man's smoldering body lay in front of the gutted gas station. Witnesses said he was shot and killed by police, then burned by residents who said he was a police informer.

Former soldiers of the disbanded army armed with heavy weapons patrolled the streets in support of the uprising in Gonaives. Looters carried away guns and helmets from the police station.

At the jail, where the attackers freed more than 100 prisoners, the sound of hammering rang out as looters dislodged metal gates and bars.

Stores and schools remained shut and severed telephone lines were strewn in streets covered with rubble.

The government vowed to restore order in the city 70 miles northwest of Port-au-Prince, the capital.

Government spokesman Mario Dupuy said Thursday the attacks "are terrorist acts undertaken by the armed wing of the opposition." He said police "will have to take measures to re-establish order." But there were no police in sight in the city Friday.

The Gonaives Resistance Front once was allied with Aristide, and residents accused the gang of terrorizing opponents of Haiti's leader. But the gang turned against Aristide last year, accusing his government of assassinating its leader, Amiot Metayer, to prevent him from releasing damaging information about Aristide. The government denies involvement.

Metayer's brother, Buteur, said Friday the fight would continue.

"We're going to defend our victory. We're going to put up checkpoints at the town's exit and entry points to prevent a police attack," he told The Associated Press, a string of bullets hanging over his shoulder.

Aristide was ousted by the army in 1991 during his first term. He was restored to power in a 1994 U.S. invasion and then disbanded the army, deploying a new civilian police force to keep order.

Anti-Aristide former soldiers have been blamed for a series of attacks in the past year that killed at least 25 people in the Central Plateau, east of Gonaives near the Dominican border.

In Port-au-Prince on Friday, one student was shot and wounded in the arm by unidentified gunmen during an anti-government march, Radio Vision 2000 said. It said police fired tear gas to break up the protest.

Police also arrested human rights activist Ketly Julien and three of her colleagues in the capital Friday, charging them with plotting a coup, Radio Vision 2000 said. Julien's Mobile Institute for Democratic Education has been critical of the police and government.

International donors are pressuring Aristide to hold new legislative elections, saying the 2000 vote was unfair. Opposition leaders refuse to participate unless Aristide resigns, which he refuses to do before his term ends 2006.

The violence has marred this year's celebrations marking Haiti's 200th anniversary of independence from France, won in the world's only successful slave revolt. Since then, freedom has proved elusive and Haitians have suffered a string of dictators and more than 30 military coups.

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