Rebels close in on Port-au-Prince
PORT-AU-PRINCE · As anti-government rebels converged on Haiti's capital city on Friday, bands of militants terrorized residents -- erecting flaming barricades to stall the rebels and threatening to kill anyone opposing President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.
At least five people were reported killed in isolated melees, several in apparent execution-style slayings on crowded city streets. Anti-government rebels, who have overtaken more than a dozen cities in a three-week march across northern Haiti, advanced to within 25 miles of the capital on Friday.
The uprising, which has left more than 80 people dead since it began Feb. 5, appeared headed to a standoff here -- one of Aristide's last remaining strongholds -- as the rebels vowed to choke off or take the capital to oust Aristide or force his resignation.
On Friday, hundreds of looters ransacked businesses and the city's port area, breaking into containers of goods and freight offices, and carting off everything from frozen meats to television sets. One looter who refused to pay a bribe to pro-Aristide chimère gang militants was shot and killed as journalists stood nearby, several witnesses reported.
Looters entered and stripped hundreds of shipping containers, filled with millions of dollars in goods from the humanitarian group CARE and the U.S. Agency for International Development.
"You understand what is going on?" asked one angry looter, giving only his first name -- André -- carting a box of chicken parts stolen from the port. "We are hungry. They are the big shots. They have all this food and they keep it for themselves. We are taking it."
Areas of downtown Port-au-Prince resembled war zones, with burning barricades, overturned cars and business districts decimated by rampaging looters. The bodies of five men were found on the streets in several normally peaceful neighborhoods, evidently killed in execution-style slayings. At least two still had their hands bound. Shotgun shells were neatly arranged near the bodies in streams of drying blood in a brazen, brutal symbolism not seen in Haiti since the early 1990s, when paramilitary gangs killed as many as 5,000 people during Haiti's last coup d'etat.
"We're just living in shock and fear, my family, everyone," said a girl, 15, asking not to be named for fear of reprisals, as she stared at the bodies of two men in the quiet residential neighborhood of PouPeland.
"The whole world is coming apart," added a 40-year-old man nearby, also refusing to give his name. "These men weren't from around here, but they probably weren't doing anything wrong, either. They just got caught after dark, and these animals, the gangs, killed them for no reason."
Friday's shootings and robberies appeared to be designed to sow terror and fear among opponents of Aristide.
Aristide, Haiti's first democratically elected president, has faced one of the worst crises of his political career with the escalating rebellion launched in the city of Gonaives on Feb. 5. The rebels, as well as an organized opposition movement, have called for his resignation because of corruption and repression of his political opponents.
"We'll die before we let those soldiers in," said one pro-Aristide gang member, refusing to give his name, echoing the sentiments of many Aristide loyalists.
Journalists and foreign aid workers were not spared from the escalating violence Friday. At least five groups of foreign and Haitian journalists were attacked or had their cars stolen Friday morning. Several were shot at while their cars were hit by rocks and other debris. A Canadian reporter was pulled from her car and assaulted while a gun was placed at her head, witnesses said. In all, six vehicles were reported stolen: four from journalists and two from the Red Cross and the international charity UNICEF.
In front of the National Palace, hundreds of youths gathered in an effort designed to repel a rebel attack. Armed with old rifles and pistols, machetes and even a dull, rusty ax, they shouted "Five years! Five years!" Aristide was elected to a five-year term that ends in February 2006.
The only government institution that seemed to be functioning was the Haitian National Police -- the remnants of a 5,000-member force that has evaporated in the face of the rebel attacks elsewhere. Many of those killed in the rebellion had been police officers targeted by the rebels. In Port-au-Prince, carloads of police patrolled areas of the city. In many neighborhoods, city officers stood by as militant gang members, known as chimère, attacked passers-by and stole their cars, witnesses said.
In Petionville, a middle-class enclave on a mountain overlooking the capital city, huge crowds stood outside a bank after hearing rumors that it was opening. In the Canape Vert neighborhood, hundreds of people stood in line to buy kerosene, a crucial fuel used for cooking and lighting by average Haitians. At one point a fight broke out as a young Aristide supporter called the gas station owner a traitor for opening his station.
The chaos Friday underscored the profound collapse of nearly all of Haiti's institutions. Basic services have been eroding for most of the decade in this poor country, where more than 80 percent of the population live on less than $1 a day.
At the State University of Haiti Hospital Friday evening, dozens of patients were left unattended as nurses and doctors fled. In the emergency room, 21 patients, suffering with everything from gunshot wounds to severed limbs, lay with only their families to care for them.
In the post-operation room, another 22 patients lay unattended by medical professionals.
"They've been bringing people here all day by ambulance, but when the families see there are no doctors or nurses here, they just pick them up and take them away," said Nicolas Martin, 31, who was in the emergency room recovering from abdominal surgery a week ago. As he spoke, a group of police officers brought in a young boy with a broken back. When his brother saw there were no doctors, he decided to take him to a spiritual healer.
The International Committee of the Red Cross said Friday it had dispatched a plane to Haiti with enough equipment for two hospitals to aid victims of the political violence. The equipment will be used at two hospitals in Port-au-Prince and Gonaïves, Haiti's fourth-largest city and the place where the rebellion began. The Red Cross, which has 15 foreign staffers along with local staff, has expressed alarm over recent days at incursions into hospitals by armed groups.
Many of the attacks by looters seemed to have been directed at opponents of the government. Heavily armed men attacked at least two businesses late Thursday and early Friday. Heavily armed men traveling in a convoy of six trucks ransacked one, the office and warehouse of an import business owned by former Prime Minister Smarck Michel.
"It wasn't the chimère," Michel told Radio Vision 2000, referring to the gun-toting street thugs who now occupy the city's downtown. "It was a commando of people dressed in black." Michel, who served as Aristide's prime minister in 1994 and 1995, when Aristide was returned to power after a three-year coup d'etat, said the men "took the office apart."
Tim Collie can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 954-356-4573.
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