The New York Times
February 11, 2004

Haitian Forces Battling Uprising Report Retaking 3 Towns

ORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti, Feb. 10 Government forces said Tuesday that they had regained control of three of nearly a dozen towns convulsed by armed uprisings against President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. In Washington, the Bush administration suggested for the first time that it might support Mr. Aristide's stepping down as part of a political settlement.

At a news conference here, Haitian government officials played down the significance of the rebellion, which erupted last Thursday and has left more than 40 people dead.

But even as the police claimed victory in St.-Marc, 45 miles north of Port-au-Prince; Grand-Goâve, southwest of the capital; and Dondon, in the north, chaos reigned in other cities.

In Cap-Haitien, the country's second-largest city, Aristide loyalists roamed the streets beating and shooting people believed to be opposed to the president, according to radio reports. In the cities retaken by the government, opposition groups said Aristide supporters were taking revenge by burning down houses and terrorizing neighborhoods.

As fighting continued, the United Nations World Food Program said roadblocks were preventing trucks from delivering needed food to thousands of people.

Gasoline was also reported in short supply.

Civic opposition groups in Port-au-Prince that have led marches calling for Mr. Aristide's resignation condemned the violence and sought to distance themselves from the uprisings, but said much of the blame for the unrest lay with Mr. Aristide.

"We continue to maintain the nonviolent approach," said Andy Apaid, an opposition spokesman. "But the sooner the international community recognizes that Mr. Aristide is at the root of and is the cause of this chaos, the sooner a peaceful process to a transition can take place. The more the wait, the more costly it will be to the United States and the world."

Opposition groups in Port-au- Prince say they are planning to march in the capital on Thursday, but have yet to obtain permission from the police.

Mr. Aristide, who became Haiti's first elected president in 1990, was ousted in a military coup nine months later, then restored to office in 1994 by the Clinton administration and thousands of American troops. Since then, the priest-turned-politician has failed to find common ground with his political opponents, and the standoff has effectively shut down the legislature and curtailed foreign aid to the government.

In Washington, the State Department spokesman, Richard Boucher, said of the current unrest, "Our goal has been to make clear to President Aristide that he needs to take the opportunity to make peace, take the opportunity to reach a political settlement." Asked whether the administration had a position on whether Mr. Aristide should finish out his term, which ends in 2006, he said, "We recognize that reaching a political settlement will require some fairly thorough changes in the way Haiti is governed and how the security situation is maintained."

A senior State Department official, briefing reporters later, said, "I think that could indeed involve changes in Aristide's position."

Administration officials said they were backing efforts by the Caribbean Community and the Organization of American States to ease tensions in Haiti, as well as carrying out their own bilateral diplomacy.

Christopher Marquis contributed reporting from Washington for this article.