Thousands cheer takeover, protesting 'Aristide must go!'
Buildings in the city of Gonaives, now under the control of the opposition, are looted. President Jean-Bertrand Aristide is blamed for the violence.
By MICHAEL A.W. OTTEY
GONAIVES, Haiti - As armed opponents of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide continued Friday to secure their takeover of this historic city, others seeking to oust the president through more peaceful means said Aristide has only himself to blame for the uprising.
Residents here took to the streets to celebrate one day after heavily armed rebel members of the Gonaives Resistance Front staged an assault in the city, running police officers and the mayor out of town and burning the police station as well as several homes.
At least seven people were killed in the attack and dozens more injured.
The shootings had subsided by Friday afternoon, although city streets were filled with barricades. Looters entered smoldering buildings and took what they could.
Most of the homes burned belonged to government officials and known Aristide supporters, said Renee Logros, a 38-year-old accountant.
''There were many houses burned,'' she said. ``One was the police station, one was the mayor's house, but many others were also burned.''
Logros said the resistance group controls three police stations in the area. She said civilians who took guns and other weapons from the police stations were now patrolling the city of about 200,000 people, located 70 miles north of Port-au-Prince.
Aristide's government vowed to restore order, but thousands of demonstrators chanting,''Aristide must go!'' said they would rebuff any attempt to dislodge the Front, which blocked roads leading to and from this seaport town.
''These are terrorist acts, and the police will step in to reestablish order and protect the population,'' Communications Minister Mario Dupuy said. ``The terrorists must be neutralized.''
More than 50 people have died in Haiti since 2000, when Aristide's party won flawed legislative elections. Aristide has vowed to remain in power until his term ends in 2006, despite daily protests.
The rebels announced a week ago that they had established a new government, but not until Thursday had they declared the city liberated.
The armed struggle has been bubbling for five months in Gonaives, Haiti's fourth-largest city and the site where former slaves who defeated Napoleon's army declared their independence from France in 1804.
In recent weeks, the rebels increased their efforts to ''cleanse'' Gonaives of Aristide supporters.
Members of the resistance were once known as the Cannibal Army, which supported Aristide until its leader, Amiot Metayer, was murdered in September. His followers blamed Aristide for the killing, an allegation the president has denied.
''Gonaives should be the city that receives the most visitors and now it's a civil war they are fighting,'' said Gervais Charles, an attorney and a member of Group 184. ''It is what scares most people in Haiti and that's why the movement of Group 184 is peaceful.'' Charles said that his group hasn't had any contact with the opposition group in Gonaives.
Several opposition leaders in Gonaives and Port-au-Prince said the government hasn't been able to bring the situation in Gonaives under control in five months and is unlikely to do so now.
''I seriously doubt Aristide can restore order in Gonaives,'' said Gerard Pierre Charles, an opposition member from the Port-au-Prince suburb of Petionville. Charles, a member of the opposition who favors Aristide's ouster through nonviolent protests, said his wing of the opposition cannot endorse the violence in Gonaives.
''We've never been in favor of violence,'' Charles said. ``We are against the violence there. Our support is not with the liberation front. Politically, our support is with the people of Gonaives who have long suffered under Aristide.''
Herald writer Jacqueline Charles contributed to this report.