Haitian rebels await a new attack
Residents of Gonaives brace themselves for another possible attack by government forces hoping to retake the city.
BY MICHAEL A.W. OTTEY
GONAIVES, Haiti - A woman in the middle of the blocked National Road No. 1 swung a shiny new machete as she swayed and spun and shouted: ``Freedom for us. . . . Death to Aristide!''
On Sunday, she and other residents in this slum city of 200,000 people, about 70 miles north of Port-au-Prince, were still beaming about the defeat of tactical police forces sent here Saturday from the capital to retake the city from armed opponents of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.
However, they were bracing for another attempt by the government
to take control of the city. There were unconfirmed reports of a convoy
of police speeding toward
Gonaives. However, there was also speculation that the destination was St. Marc, where the unrest had spread and armed government opponents roamed the streets.
Emboldened, hundreds of residents in St. Marc looted shipping containers and made off with sacks of flour and furnishings and other goods, including television sets.
The situation was deteriorating fast in Haiti, as other cities and villages in the Artibonite region fell into the hands of armed opponents. Meanwhile, Aristide opponents in Port-au-Prince canceled a demonstration on Sunday, citing security concerns and respect for the fallen police officers. A day earlier, Aristide backers had marched through the capital, some defiantly carrying rifles.
Government officials blamed the escalating violence on Aristide opponents and released, as an example of that violence, the photograph of an Aristide supporter attacked with a machete.
On the first day of the siege Thursday in Gonaives, people danced
in the streets, with the charred bodies of police officers killed in the
attack and homes and property
owned by Aristide supporters still smoldering as a backdrop.
Aristide sent a tactical police force to retake Gonaives on Saturday, but the effort failed as seemingly the whole town pulled together to trap the police force within the city. People blocked roads with boulders, rusted car chassis, even an abandoned bus.
Gunfire rang out from morning into the afternoon. By the time the fierce fighting between police and the heavily armed rebels ended, at least seven officers lay dead and several others wounded. Remaining officers retreated by nightfall Saturday.
The population's treatment of the dead officers' bodies was especially
harsh. The Associated Press reported that the bodies were mutilated and
dragged through the
The rebels reported that two of their compatriots and 14 police officers were killed in the gun battle. But other sources, including local radio, reported that seven officers were killed. The government has not released numbers.
Calling the violence acts of terrorism, the government has vowed to regain control of the area. ''These terrorist acts . . . are afflicting families with grief and are destroying the socioeconomic infrastructures,'' Mario Dupuy, a government spokesman, said in a statement.
Gonaives, Haiti's fourth-largest city, has declared itself free and independent of Aristide and his government. The turning point really began five months ago when Amiot Metayer, the leader of the so-called Cannibal Army, was assassinated. His followers say it was on Aristide's orders.
Since then, the gang has dropped the Cannibal Army name and uses the more general Gonaives Resistance Front. These gangs were once Aristide allies, but have since turned against him.
While the anti-Aristide movement in Port-au-Prince and elsewhere
has used a strategy of relatively peaceful protest, in Gonaives it has
been an armed struggle, and it
came to a head with events Thursday and Saturday.
''We are willing to fight and die if necessary,'' said Ralph Aquissa D'Aout, a 32-year-old tailor from the Raboteau slum in Gonaives. ``It's a battle that we're up against, but it's one we will win.''
During the fighting, D'Aout crouched, surrounded by other men equipped with two-way radios and assault rifles.
D'Aout was clearly in charge, as he called over armed men and boys and whispered orders. As his men exchanged fire with Aristide's police force, D'Aout told The Herald he was commanding Force 86, led by Jean Tatoune. Tatoune was convicted of involvement in the 1994 slayings of Aristide supporters in what became known as the Raboteau massacre and was one of more than 150 inmates who escaped from the Gonaives prison in 2002.