The Miami Herald
Mon, Feb. 23, 2004
President's supporters brace for attack

Armed Aristide backers build barricades in the capital to block a possible attack from rebels, while the Carnival continues.


PORT-AU-PRINCE -- Armed government supporters threw up makeshift barricades on the northern limits of the Haitian capital Sunday, fearing an attack by rebels fighting to topple President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

In working-class neighborhoods like Butte Boyer, where Aristide still enjoys popular support, dozens of men in their 20s and 30s -- some carrying shotguns -- guarded barricades made from concrete pipes, parked trucks and boulders.

The barricades started going up after rebels on Sunday seized Cap Haitien, Haiti's second-largest city. The rebels have vowed that they will soon attack the National Palace, the seat of government in downtown Port-au-Prince.

The capital is believed to hold the bulk of the country's 4,000-strong police force, including a SWAT-like tactical team and a more heavily armed special forces unit, though they number fewer than 100 agents each.

A senior Western diplomat in the capital said he did not expect the rebels to attack Port-au-Prince right away but rather to use a ''psychological strategy'' to scare the police and government supporters into running away.

Police have melted away throughout central and northern Haiti at mere speculation about approaching rebels.

While the police presence on the outskirts of the capital was light, it was relatively heavy in downtown sectors as the Lenten Carnival continued amid dozens of heavily armed riot police, some of them riding on trucks.

''Port-au-Prince is very complicated right now,'' said Ariel Henry, a physician and member of the opposition Democratic Convergence.

''I've come for the pleasure, enthusiasm, to see beautiful people, the music, the food,'' said Jonathan Kirkpatrick, 34, an English grammar teacher from Knoxville, Tenn., as he watched the costumed carnival partygoers stroll by.

Kirkpatrick, one U.S. citizen who decided to stay despite State Department warnings last week advising Americans to leave, said he wouldn't stay out long into the night because of the carnival's violent reputation and the prevailing political tension.

``Anytime, there could be shooting, stabbings. I came to look, but I'm not going to stay when it gets hot.''

Herald staff writer Jacqueline Charles contributed to this report.