Haitian coup attempt put down

Tuesday, December 18, 2001

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti -- A gang of gunmen seized Haiti's National Palace in a coup attempt Monday, killing four people before police retook the building. Three others, including one of the attackers, died as violence spread.

Government supporters armed with machetes and sticks struck back by burning the homes and offices of opposition leaders around the country.

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 rarely stays at the palace, which serves as the presidential office and official residence.

"We have thwarted the coup," Aristide said later in nationwide radio broadcast from the palace.

Monday's violence prompted the U.S. Embassy to close its doors and urge Americans in Haiti to stay at home. Airlines canceled flights to the impoverished Caribbean nation.

Since Aristide's Lavalas Family party swept disputed parliamentary and local elections in May 2000, Haiti has been mired in unrest but Monday's attack was by far the most violent.

Maurice said 33 gunmen first tried to attack the national penitentiary, but were rebuffed.

They then moved on to the palace, lobbing a grenade at the building at about 2 a.m. and opening fire as they entered. Two police officers were killed and six others were injured, Maurice said.

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

Police later arrested one of the alleged attackers in a pickup truck outside the city, police said. The rest escaped, some in a pickup truck that sped out of the palace.

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