Crowds loot port as rebel uprising spreads in Haiti

Monday, February 9, 2004

ST. MARC, Haiti -- Hundreds of Haitians looted TV sets, mattresses and sacks of flour from shipping containers Sunday in this port town, one of several communities seized by rebels in a bloody uprising against President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

Using felled trees, flaming tires and car chassis, residents blocked streets throughout St. Marc a day after militants drove out police in gunbattles that killed two people. Many residents have formed neighborhood groups to back insurgents in their push to expel the president.

"After Aristide leaves, the country will return to normal," said Axel Philippe, 34, among dozens massed on the highway leading to St. Marc, a city of about 100,000 located some 45 miles northwest of the capital, Port-au-Prince.

At least 18 people have been killed since armed opponents of Aristide began their assault Thursday, setting police stations on fire and driving officers from the northwestern city of Gonaives and several smaller nearby towns.

Anger has been brewing in Haiti since Aristide's party won flawed legislative elections in 2000. The opposition refuses to join in any new vote unless the president resigns; he insists on serving out his term, which ends in 2006.

Clashes between government opponents, police and Aristide supporters have killed at least 69 people since mid-September.

In the bloodiest fights of recent days, 150 police tried to retake control of Gonaives on Saturday but left hours later after meeting fierce resistance, witnesses said. At least nine people were killed, seven of them police, in gunbattles with rebels hiding on side streets and crouched in doorways.

The recent violence started Thursday when members of the Gonaives Resistance Front, took control of the Gonaives police station during a five-hour gunbattle. They set fire to buildings -- including the mayor's house -- and freed more than 100 prisoners from the city jail. Those clashes left at least seven dead and 20 injured.

The Gonaives Resistance Front used to be allied with Aristide. But it turned against him last year and changed its name from the "Cannibal Army," accusing the government of killing its leader Amiot Metayer to keep him from releasing damaging information about Aristide. The government denies it.

Some gunmen in Gonaives wore the camouflage pants and helmets of Haiti's disbanded army. The army ousted Aristide in 1991 during his first term. He was restored in a 1994 U.S. invasion and then disbanded the army, replacing it with a new civilian police force.

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