The Miami Herald
March 21, 2001

50 in building trapped by pro-Aristide crowd


 PORT-AU-PRINCE -- Inside the headquarters of the Haitian opposition Tuesday, panic had not yet set in, but the 50 people blockaded in
 the offices by supporters of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide did not know how long they could last with no food and little water.

 For nearly 24 hours the angry mob outside had laid siege to the building, protected only by a high rock wall and steel gates.

 ``We are being held hostage here,'' said Paul Denis, a spokesman for the Convergence Democratique, a coalition of 15 political parties that
 has challenged Aristide's legitimacy as president by naming its own president, Gerard Gourgue, a lawyer and human rights activist whose
 home and office are also under attack.

 The standoff outside the political headquarters was part of an intensifying round of political violence that began over the weekend as supporters of Aristide staged street
 demonstrations and erected burning barricades in parts of the city to protest opposition claims that Aristide's government lacks legitimacy.

 ``If we leave the building, they are going to tear us to pieces,'' Denis said. ``We are not leaving. We are not going to let them come here and burn us down.''

 Neither the police, nor anyone from the government, has offered them help, Denis said. In a second-floor office, as dozens of the coalition's members looked on, Denis
 said the group's only protection amounted to a couple of .12-gauge shotguns and a little ammunition.

 Broken bottles and rocks littered the courtyard and the street outside. Several firebombs were lobbed at the building, Denis said. No one could leave or come in.

 From outside, the building appeared deserted. Only a lookout could be seen crouched on a balcony, wearing an old and cracked hockey helmet to protect himself from
 the rocks.


 By mid-afternoon, riot police armed with heavy weapons had sealed off the streets leading to the opposition's offices. That lowered the tension somewhat, though Aristide
 supporters remained behind the barricades, yelling and screaming. The police did nothing to disperse them.

 It was a different story in the morning, Denis said, when a mob of the president's supporters -- Denis said 50, but other news reports estimated up to 200 -- came down
 the hill facing the building and behind to hurl stones. Several firebombs were thrown over the gate, and shots were fired.

 One person inside the building was slightly wounded.

 ``We heard the weapons,'' said Sauveur Pierre Etienne, another member of the coalition who kept fielding calls from supporters in and out of the country as he spoke.
 ``They were weapons of war.''

 The guards inside the building shot in the air in attempt to scare off the attackers, Etienne said. ``We don't know at what point they are going to have a second wave of
 attackers,'' he said. ``We don't know how long this little peace is going to last.''

 Denis and others in the opposition say Aristide supporters were trucked to their headquarters in government vehicles, and they were given the rocks and Molotov
 cocktails. Aristide's party, Lavalas Family, has consistently denied charges of working in collusion with the rioters.

 Asked if the government was sponsoring the attacks, Aristide spokesman Mario Dupry said, ``We are waiting for the police report to be made before making statements,
 but we condemn violence in whatever shape or form.''

 As the day worn on, the mob continued to chant and lob insults in the direction of the office, but it was kept far enough away by riot police that rocks and other projectiles
 could not reach the building.

 ``Gerard Gourgue is blocking the country, making it impossible for us to send our kids to school,'' said Gerda Vancol, 43, who said she belonged to the group Nap
 Kontinue Batay, Creole for ``We are keeping up the fight.''

 ``I voted for Aristide,'' she said. ``These opposition people are selling the country to the white Republicans in Washington.''

 Haiti's latest descent into political chaos began Saturday, when Aristide supporters erected flaming barricades among major thoroughfares, stopping all activity.


 By Tuesday, most of what remained were piles of smoldering rubber and the burned shell of a van that had been set on fire in Petionville, a suburb in the hills where most
 of the capital's well-to-do live.

 Stores throughout the city remained closed on Tuesday.

 Opposition members claim that both legislative and presidential elections held last year were fraudulent. They want Aristide to call for new elections supervised by an
 independent electoral commission.

 Denis said the opposition is doing the right thing by continuing to protest and will not be scared away.

 ``We want to function as a political party, without fear,'' said Denis, who seemed visibly shaken by the day's events.

 By Tuesday afternoon, the barricades made of rocks and tree trunks went back up with little police presence to force their removal.

 Denis and the others said they did not know how long they would hold out. ``We are not armed and we are exercising our rights as citizens. Maybe we will last until
 tomorrow, maybe we won't.''

                                    © 2001