Escaped Haitian political activist demands Aristide resign

Monday, August 5, 2002

GONAIVES, Haiti -- Families walked to church Sunday as calm settled on the streets of this Haitian port city, two days after gunmen drove a tractor through a prison wall and unleashed 159 inmates, including a local political activist.

None of the escaped convicts was reported captured, and no police were on the streets Sunday.

Many people blamed President Jean-Bertrand Aristide's government for the chaos.

"We don't like disorder, but Aristide is to blame. I'm sorry I voted for him. He's given street thugs a free hand," Smith Auguste, a 21-year-old unemployed man, said Saturday.

Many residents in the dusty streets of Gonaives, a west-coast city of 200,000 people, complained they have no electricity, few jobs and little hope.

Escaped activist Amiot Metayer accused Aristide of wrongly putting him behind bars and demanded the resignation of the president, a former ally.

About 100 supporters of Metayer led a reporter to the activist in his shantytown stronghold on Saturday, chanting: "Down with Aristide!"

"The future of Haiti is a Haiti without Aristide," Metayer told The Associated Press in a tin-walled room. "Aristide should resign." Thirty of his militants from the self-styled Cannibal Army stood guard, some carrying pistols and submachine guns.

The latest violence and apparent inability of police to react is another indication of the growing chaos enveloping the hemisphere's poorest nation, mired in a two-year political impasse over fraudulent elections that has blocked international aid.

Police fled the city after the jailbreak, then returned Saturday in small numbers. But none dared approach Metayer's stronghold in the Gonaives shantytown of Raboteau.

Only charred ruins remain where people set fire to the courthouse and city hall on Friday, after the jailbreak.

Metayer turned against Aristide after he was jailed July 2 on charges of burning down houses of a rival gang. The activist says he is innocent.

"I suffered for the cause of democracy, and Aristide ordered my arrest," said Metayer, dressed in black with a red bandanna around his neck.

According to an Organization of American States report, Metayer participated in past attacks on Aristide opponents, including an assault on the home of politician Luc Mesadieu on Dec. 17. After an armed attack on the country's National Palace that day, Aristide supporters attacked opposition offices and homes.

Mesadieu's assistant, Ramy Daran, was doused with gasoline and burned to death. Mesadieu said he saw Metayer give orders to kill Daran.

The 38-year-old activist denied it, saying although he saw Daran die, "I came too late to save him. I never hurt anybody in my life."

At least 10 people died in the Dec. 17 violence, which Aristide claims was a coup attempt. The opposition claims it was staged as a pretext to clamp down on dissent.

Police fruitlessly searched cars and buses for escaped prisoners on the southbound highway from Gonaives to Port-au-Prince, about 60 miles away.

The gunmen used a stolen tractor to ram the prison wall, freeing 159 of the 221 inmates, said Clifford Larose, director of Haiti's prison system. One prisoner was shot and killed by the attackers.

Metayer's supporters had been demanding his release for week. In a handwritten list of demands, they urged the creation of an interim government, new elections by November 2003 and raising wages of police and other workers. Metayer also said he wants safe passage to Orlando, Fla., where his mother and two daughters are staying.

Government officials didn't immediately respond to the demands.

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