Foreigners flee Haitian capital as looting, panic strike city

Thursday, February 26, 2004

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti -- Foreigners fled Haiti amid looting in parts of the capital Wednesday, but the rebel leader said the insurgents want to "give a chance to peace" and indicated his troops would hold off attacking the capital.

Pressure mounted for an international intervention and for President Jean-Bertrand Aristide to step down.

A U.N. Security Council meeting on Haiti was scheduled for today. President Bush said the United States is encouraging the international community to provide a strong "security presence," and France said a peace force should be established immediately for deployment once a political agreement is reached.

Port-au-Prince barricaded

Foreigners tried to flee the country and looting erupted in the capital. Aristide supporters set dozens of flaming barricades that blocked roads throughout Port-au-Prince, and shots were shuttered. Panic overtook the city, though there was no sign of the rebels.

The rebels have overrun half of Haiti including its second-largest city, Cap-Haitien, where their leader, Guy Philippe, told The Associated Press on Wednesday that they were taking a wait-and-see approach to proposals to send international peacekeepers.

"If they do not attack the Haitian people, we won't attack them," he said. "If they come to help us to remove Mr. Aristide, they will be welcome."

Philippe estimated his rebel force had grown from a couple of hundred to 5,000 with new recruits and more ex-soldiers joining the 3-week-old popular uprising to oust Aristide, and said they were ready to fight.

Asked when they planned to move on Port-au-Prince, he said: "We're ready. We just want to give a chance to peace," indicating they would hold off. "We're ready to talk to anyone. The only one the country doesn't want is Mr. Aristide."

As the rebels plotted their moves, leaders of Haiti's political opposition rejected an international peace plan that diplomats had billed as a last chance for peace, and asked the international community to help ensure a "timely and orderly" departure of Aristide.

French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin urged the "immediate" establishment of an international civilian force.

"This international force would be responsible for guaranteeing the return to public order and supporting the international community's action on the ground," Villepin said. "It would come to the support of a government of national unity."

Jamaica's U.N. ambassador, Stafford O. Neil, said at the United Nations it might be possible to dispatch a small "interposition force" to keep the rebels and Aristide supporters apart.

One U.N. diplomat noted the rebels can come to Port-au-Prince only by two roads, so placing such a force would be relatively easy and would buy time for a political solution.

De Villepin said he was to meet Friday in Paris with representatives of the government and the opposition. Opposition leader Mischa Gaillard, however, said it was unclear when they would be able to leave Haiti because of the political chaos.

The roadblocks across Port-au-Prince were intended to stop the rebels who began the uprising Feb. 5, but militants at the barricades also used guns and stones to stop cars and loot them of handbags, luggage and cell phones. Police did not intervene.

Looters struck two warehouses in Port-au-Prince on Wednesday, stealing $200,000 worth of medical equipment and food from one and $300,000 worth of tropical wood from the other.

Overnight, a car dealership on the airport road was looted and torched. A suburban bar was set ablaze, and nearby shops were looted, along with a private food warehouse in the Cite Soleil seaside slum.

American Airlines delayed three of its five daily flights to the United States because crew and passengers were having problems getting through the roadblocks. Air Jamaica canceled its flights to Haiti.

Guy Lockrey, an auto worker from Flint, Mich., abandoned his car at a barricade and headed to the airport on foot with his suitcase when police picked him up.

"We didn't feel any tension until we got close to the capital," said Lockrey, who had been helping to build a church in west-central Haiti.

U.S. Marines, who arrived Monday, were to escort a convoy of U.N. personnel. The United Nations ordered all nonessential staff and family to leave.

Britain and Australia have urged their citizens to leave, following similar warnings from the United States, France and Mexico. There are about 30,000 foreigners in Haiti, 20,000 of them Americans.

Canada and the Dominican Republic sent small teams of troops to protect their embassies. Canadian Maj. Mike Audette said the Canadians would join soldiers sent Tuesday to prepare for the possible evacuation of more than 1,000 Canadians.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints evacuated the last of its 56 non-Haitian missionaries. "We're hoping to come back when there's peace," said Joel Tougas, a church elder from Deep Cove, Canada.

On Tuesday, Aristide warned that thousands could die if rebels tried to take the capital. At least two men were shot to death Wednesday in Cap-Haitien -- one for allegedly looting, another for supporting Aristide, and the Red Cross raised the overall death toll to 80, at least half of them police.

Aristide on Saturday accepted an international peace plan under which he would remain as president but with diminished powers, sharing the government with his political rivals.

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