Haitian police recapture National Palace after coup attempt

Monday, December 17, 2001

Associated Press WriterPORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (AP) -- Armed commandos stormed the National Palace early Monday, killing four people before police recaptured the building and killed one of the gunmen. Government supporters, meanwhile, retaliated by burning down the homes and offices of opposition leaders.

President Jean-Bertrand Aristide and his wife were unharmed in their home in Tabarre, about three miles from the palace, said National Palace spokesman Jacques Maurice. Nearly 12 hours after the attack, Aristide still had not appeared on television or radio, but government officials said he would issue a statement later in the day.

President Jean-Bertrand Aristide and his wife were unharmed in their home in Tabarre, about three miles from the palace, said National Palace spokesman Jacques Maurice. Aristide did not appear on television or radio but government officials said he would issue a statement later in the day.

Hundreds of Aristide's supporters, wielding machetes and sticks, surrounded the palace, shouting, "We'll never accept another coup d'etat."

Aristide was first elected president in 1990 and stayed in power only eight months before the army ousted him in a coup that began Sept. 30, 1991. He was restored to power in 1994 by U.S. troops but a term limit forced him to step down in 1996 and he was replaced by his protege, Rene Preval. Aristide began his second term in February.

"This is an attempted coup d'etat," Maurice said.

In apparent retribution for the palace attack, Aristide supporters torched the headquarters of the Convergence opposition alliance in the capital as well as three buildings that serve as headquarters for the socialist National Congress of Democratic Movements, the center-left Convention of Democratic Unity and the rightist Alliance for the Liberation of Haiti, all members of the 15-party alliance.

Aristide supporters also burned down the home of opposition leader Luc Mesadieu in northern Gonaives and attacked the home of opposition leader Gerard Pierre-Charles in Petionville, just outside Port-au-Prince. There were no reported injuries.

They also ransacked the French Institute, a cultural center in Port-au-Prince run by the French government. Aristide has accused the international community of "economic terrorism" in suspending aid. France has been among donors withholding aid over disputed elections last year.

By midmorning police had retaken the palace, shooting and killing one gunman, said National Palace security head Jean Oriel.

The other gunmen fled and police were searching for them, Oriel said.

Oriel said the gunman who died, like others in the group, was dressed in the khaki uniform of Haiti's former army, which Aristide disbanded after he returned to power in 1994.

"I don't know what happened at the National Palace, but it has become a pretext to massacre the opposition," said former Justice Minister Gerard Gourgue, who heads the opposition alliance.

Gourgue said he has gone into hiding and fears for his life.

Culture and Communication Minister Guy Paul called the burning of the opposition headquarters "a regrettable incident" but said "the people are enraged and things like that are difficult to avoid."

Before attacking the national palace, the commandos attempted to attack the national penitentiary, but they were rebuffed.

The gunmen then moved onto the palace, lobbing a grenade at the building around 2 a.m., then opening fire as they entered, Maurice said. They killed two police officers guarding the palace, and six others were wounded in the clash, Maurice said.

A pickup truck, apparently carrying some of the gunmen, sped out of the palace in the morning and escaped, national radio reported. The men in the truck shot and killed two passers-by as they fled, witnesses said.

At the palace, the attackers used the building's two-way radio system to communicate among themselves, some in Creole and others in English and Spanish, Maurice said.

A government official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the attackers identified their leader as the former police chief of northern Cap-Haitien city, Guy Philippe, who fled to the neighboring Dominican Republic last year with seven police officers accused of plotting a coup.

But Philippe called The Associated Press from the Dominican Republic to deny involvement in the attack, saying "it was a staged event to give a pretext for attacking the opposition."

American Airlines canceled its six flights to Port-au-Prince on Monday. Charter carriers also said they weren't flying to Haiti.

Both Haitian and Dominican authorities tightened security along their common border but the border remained open.

Flaming tire barricades burned on several corners in the capital. Several radio stations went off air, and personnel from the U.S. Embassy were told to stay home.

Since Aristide's Lavalas Family party swept parliamentary and local elections in May 2000, Haiti has been mired in unrest with the opposition calling the elections fraudulent and foreign donors refusing to release hundreds of millions of dollars in aid until results are revised.

There has also been mounting grass-roots opposition to Aristide within his own party. Protesters have accused Aristide of failing to deliver on promises of basic services such as sanitation and electricity.

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