Bloody uprising threatens Haiti's second-largest city

Thursday, February 19, 2004

CAP-HAITIEN, Haiti -- Frightened police barricaded themselves inside their station Wednesday and said they could not repel a threatened rebel attack on Haiti's second-largest city, the last major government bastion in the north. Officers in other towns deserted their posts with no guerrillas in sight.

Even as police made clear they were too scared to patrol the streets of Cap-Haitien, militant defenders of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide vowed to take a stand against the 2-week-old rebellion, which has killed some 60 people and has attracted leaders with murderous backgrounds.

"We have machetes and guns, and we will resist," said carpenter Pierre Frandley. "The police might have been scared, but the people got together and organized. ... We blocked the streets."

There were fears rebels already have infiltrated the northern port and more were headed that way.

U.S. officials worry the current crisis would only worsen if Aristide is forced to flee. One option being internally discussed is a transfer of power, with Aristide's consent, to a temporary governing board made up of Haitians who would run the country until a new president was elected. It is not clear how much support that proposal has at top levels of the Bush administration.

Aristide rebuffed Bush administration suggestions that he convene early presidential elections as a way to defuse the crisis, a senior U.S. official said Wednesday.

Although the administration has said it is opposed to any Haitian opposition attempt to drive Aristide from office, Bush officials are privately discussing ideas for a possible constitutional succession before Aristide's term expires in February 2006.

Haitian government spokesman Mario Dupuy called both options "unacceptable."

"They are tantamount to admitting the legitimacy of a coup d'etat against the government," he said.

As Haiti's beleaguered government pleaded in vain for international help, former soldiers ousted in a 1994 U.S. military intervention crossed from the Dominican Republic to join the rebellion.

"The army is no longer demobilized. The army is mobilized," said Jean-Baptiste Joseph, a former army sergeant who had headed a group of demobilized soldiers before being jailed in the 1990s for plotting insurrection.

He spoke in Hinche, a town of 50,000 at a strategic crossroads in Haiti's agriculture-rich Artibonite district, which was seized Monday by some 50 rebels led by a former death squad leader.

Amnesty International warned "the specter of past violations continues to haunt Haiti" and that the newly emerged rebel leaders have "a horrific track record when it comes to human rights."

Their arrival means "fears of a mass population outflow from Haiti are bound to increase," the human rights organization warned, recalling the tens of thousands of Haitian boatpeople who fled to U.S. shores to escape the 1991-1994 military dictatorship.

One sign that a refugee crisis may be imminent would be a large-scale construction of boats. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said there are no signs of such activity, but the administration wants to "make sure that we're prepared should something happen."

The rebels have chased police from more than a dozen towns and cut supply lines to northern Haiti from Port-au-Prince, the capital to the south, and from the western Dominican Republic, which shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti. Dominican soldiers said Wednesday they arrested four fleeing Haitian police along the sparsely guarded border.

Food and fuel prices have soared behind rebel lines; electricity and telephone service, always erratic, has been cut totally in many towns. Most vulnerable are nearly 300,000 drought-stricken peasants dependent on food aid.

The U.N. Security Council on Wednesday threw its weight behind Caribbean and Latin American efforts to find a peaceful political solution. The statement came at the behest of Chile, whose ambassador, Heraldo Munoz, said there was no discussion about sending U.N. peacekeepers.

The Security Council called on Aristide's government and the opposition "to restore confidence and dialogue, and overcome their differences peacefully and democratically through constitutional means."

Only France, Haiti's former colonizer, has said it is considering whether there is support for an intervention force.

The crisis has been brewing since Aristide's party swept flawed legislative elections in 2000. Donors froze millions in international aid, leaving Aristide no means to keep election promises to make a better life for Haiti's 8 million people, half of whom go hungry daily.

Since then, Aristide has lost support amid charges he uses police and militants to terrorize opponents and allows corruption fueled by drug-trafficking to go unchecked.

The once-beloved former priest, who won Haiti's first free elections in a landslide in 1990, was ousted by the military eight months later. He was restored to popular acclaim when the United States sent 20,000 troops to Haiti in 1994.

Illustrating the problems Aristide faces, businessman Bruno Firmin told AP that people in Cap-Haitien think rebels already have infiltrated some neighborhoods and that many would welcome them, even though their leaders are former military and police officers with infamously bad human rights records.

"I'm not afraid of the rebels, I'm afraid of the Aristide supporters," Firmin said of gangs of toughs who have burned homes and attacked opposition supporters in Cap-Haitien.

At Cap-Haitien's police station, one officer who spoke on condition of anonymity admitted they too were scared. "Of course we are," he said. "It's a natural reaction after what happened in Gonaives and in other parts of the country."

Associated Press reporter George Gedda contributed to this story from Washington.

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