Aristide backers brace for fight as Haitian rebels advance
PORT-AU-PRINCE · As anti-government rebels advanced on this capital city Thursday night, threatening to attack unless President Jean-Bertrand Aristide resigns, residents braced for an onslaught of violence.
Pro-government militant gangs fanned out throughout downtown streets, shooting guns and burning barricades in anticipation of an assault by the rebel fighters who have overtaken more than a dozen other cities and towns. The calm atmosphere of the morning hours Thursday had degenerated by nightfall into chaotic protests and marches in many parts of the city.
Smoke, rising from burning barricades erected to stall the rebels, filled the sky above many neighborhoods throughout Port-au-Prince, one of Aristide's last remaining strongholds. In front of the presidential palace, hundreds of angry youths armed with guns and other weapons threatened to burn the city if Aristide resigns or flees the rebellion.
"What we're going to do if Aristide leaves this country is cut the head off of the bourgeoisie and scorch their houses," said J.R. Louie, 42, a furniture maker and pro-Aristide chimère militant. Nearby, several men drove bulldozers carrying dozens of youths, some as young as 10, armed with automatic pistols. The bulldozers stacked garbage and other debris to build a defensive rampart in front of the palace.
"It's a historic moment, a decisive moment, because the terrorists are coming to destroy our country and kill our president," said Frantz Elie Lagros, a law student. "These people are thugs, these rebels. They have killed our people and now they want to destroy the country."
The strong smell of marijuana permeated the crowd as groups of young men rushed to set up barricades of large rocks, rusting metal and pick-up trucks. Several gunmen demanded money from a group of foreign journalists to pay for ammunition.
On John Brown Avenue, a main thoroughfare, a young woman was wounded as men began shooting indiscriminately, causing a panic that wrecked several cars. A group of men in a pickup truck picked her up and sped off. Further down the road, groups of children armed with pistols and metal rods stopped drivers and demanded money. The youths appeared to be members of the capital city's thousands of street children.
Shooting and rock-throwing attacks also broke out in the middle class enclave of Petionville and a gunfight was reported at the Katherine Dunham Botanical Garden near the suburb of Carrefour. Early in the day, a truckload of gunmen fired shots at the home of Haiti's most prominent architect, Albert Mongones, and wounded a security guard, according to members of Mongones' family. The French Embassy called on police to try to evacuate Mongones' widow, an elderly French citizen, and their daughter.
But a leading police commander said there was little the police could do to stave off the chaos.
"I don't know what the security situation is everywhere, but we're just a police force, not an army," said Romaine Lestin, a police commander who oversees a station near the city's international airport. "We're a police force trying to deal with an attacking army. We are not equipped to do that."
Earlier in the day, other police officers said they were laying down their arms.
"I don't even carry my gun home anymore, because these gangs are only going to steal it," said one police officer at Toussaint L'Ouverature International Airport. "We're not equipped or trained to deal with any of this. We need help. Most of my colleagues don't even wear their uniforms. It's too dangerous. I'm not coming to work tomorrow." The police officer asked that his name not be used.
On Thursday morning, Americans with M-16s rode shotgun with a convoy of U.N. workers and their families on the way to the international airport. Military helicopters of the Dominican Republic, which shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti, were ferrying people from the Dominican Embassy to the airport.
American Airlines on Thursday suspended until March 3 its flights to Port-au-Prince, saying its workers could no longer get to the airport. The suspended flights included a daily flight from Fort Lauderdale, three flights each day from Miami and one from New York's Kennedy International Airport and weekend service from Boston. American Airlines said its 4 p.m. flight from Port-au-Prince to Miami on Thursday was the last departure.
"In recent days it has become extremely difficult for our employees to gain access to the airport," said American Airlines senior Vice President Peter J. Dolora, in a statement. "We are now concerned that we will not have enough people at the airport to properly serve our customers and handle our aircraft at the gate."
Few airlines fly to Haiti. In Fort Lauderdale, Lynx Air International serves Cap Haïtien four times weekly with 19-seat aircraft. Its offices were closed late Thursday and efforts to find out whether it is still flying to Haiti were unsuccessful. American Airlines also flies from Fort Lauderdale to the Dominican Republic.
The airport was packed on Thursday, mostly with Haitian-Americans trying to return to the United States.
"Anyone is going to want to save his own skin. It's a state of fear," said a 34-year-old Haitian who lives in New York and didn't want to give his name.
Rebel leader Guy Philippe would not say if an attack on the capital was imminent.
"We're just going to take our positions and wait for the right time. They're awaiting the order," he said in Cap-Haïtien, the second-largest city, which fell to the rebels with little resistance on Sunday.
Philippe said the rebels already had sleeper cells in the capital and that they would be reinforced by fighters moving in from variety of locations.
There were no independent witness reports of rebel movement, but there also appeared to be few fighters in Cap-Haïtien, where hundreds were seen Wednesday. Cap-Haïtien is only t 90 miles north of Port-au-Prince, but it is a seven-hour drive over potholed roads.
Staff writer Tom Steighorst contributed to this report, which was supplemented with information from wire services.
Copyright © 2004