The New York Times
February 27, 2004

Rebels Take Crossroads Town Near Haiti's Capital


PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (AP) -- Rebels who have overrun half of Haiti seized another town Friday and closed in on the tense capital, where looting erupted and supporters of embattled President Jean-Bertrand Aristide fired guns in the air.

A new rebel group seized Haiti's third-largest city, Les Cayes, in the 3-week-old uprising, and the main rebel leader said his forces were in the town of Jeremie in their first push into the country's southern peninsula.

As the United States and France made clear that Aristide should resign, the rebels freed about 67 prisoners in Mirebalais, about 25 miles northeast of Port-au-Prince, witnesses said.

"The police ran. They left everything and went into Port-au-Prince,'' rebel leader Guy Philippe said from his base in the northern port of Cap-Haitien. ``They left hours before'' the rebel advance, he said.

Mirebalais is at a strategic crossroads leading west to the government-held town of St. Marc, south to the capital, east to the Dominican Republic and north into territory where the rebels have chased police from scores of towns.

Philippe mapped out a new strategy that suggested no direct attack was imminent. He said rebels want to blockade Port-au-Prince and "close the circle'' around Aristide, forcing boats with food or fuel from Miami to come to Cap-Haitien, the second-largest city.

"We want to block Port-au-Prince totally,'' he told reporters. ``No more boats to Port-au-Prince.''

That strategy would bring further misery to residents, already lining up for scarce gas and dwindling fresh produce since the rebels cut supplies from the central Artibonite district that is Haiti's breadbasket.

Philippe said his movement does not want to fight Aristide's die-hard supporters.

"Port-au-Prince now, it would be very hard to take it. It would be a lot of fight, a lot of death,'' Philippe said. ``So what we want is desperation first, so that's what we're doing now, closing the circle.''

At a police station in Croix-des-Bouquets, officers shed their uniforms for civilian clothes, appeared to have abandoned their guns and were ready to flee.

People went about their business, though, with street vendors hawking goods.

The southern port of Les Cayes fell Thursday to the Base Resistance, a group allied with Haiti's opposition Democratic Platform but not tied to the rebels.

In Port-au-Prince, armed Aristide loyalists set up more blazing barricades to protect the presidential palace, and some fired shots into the air. Dozens of roadblocks were built overnight, where Aristide supporters were robbing motorists.

Robbins Jean, a 25-year-old Aristide youth organizer, criticized the international community, especially the Bush administration and France, which have strongly hinted that the president should resign.

"You tell George W. Bush he is a hypocrite and an assassin because the terrorists are killing the Haitian people,'' Jean said, speaking near the National Palace, where hundreds of youths were armed with old rifles, pistols, machetes and even a dull, rusty ax.

"We will fight to the death,'' Jean said.

Hundreds of people attacked the port. In a chaotic scene, people looted containers of food, TVs and furniture. No police were in sight.

"There's a lot of humanitarian aid down there. If it gets worse, it could all go,'' said Wyk Lemke, head of the Haitian Shipping Association.

The international community continued to try to resolve the crisis through diplomacy, demanding a political settlement between Aristide and opposition politicians before they would agree to send peacekeepers. But it appeared to be too late.

In Paris, French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin met with Aristide chief of staff Jean-Claude Desgranges and Foreign Minister Joseph Antonio on the crisis in its former colony. Neither side commented afterward.

France has taken the lead in seeking Aristide's departure. On Thursday, Secretary of State Colin Powell came close to telling Aristide he should bow out before his term expires in 2006.

"Whether or not he is able to effectively continue as president is something he will have to examine carefully in the interests of the Haitian people,'' Powell said.

But Aristide said he would not resign.

He also said it wouldn't take much help from abroad to crush the insurgency, which is led by Philippe, an army officer who was Aristide's assistant police chief for north Haiti, and has been joined by former Haitian army death squad leader Louis-Jodel Chamblain.

``From my point of view, if we have a couple of dozen of international soldiers, police, together right now, it could be enough to send a positive signal to those terrorists,'' Aristide told CNN. ``Once they realize the international community refuses (to allow) the terrorists to keep killing people, we can prevent them to kill more people.''

Jamaican Foreign Minister K.D. Knight, speaking for the 15-nation Caribbean Community that includes Haiti, appealed to the U.N. Security Council for immediate military assistance.

But Powell and his counterparts from France and Canada said Haiti's government and opposition politicians must reach a political agreement before any peacekeepers go.

The rebellion began Feb. 5 in western Gonaives, the fourth-largest city. Cap-Haitien fell easily Sunday.

About 80 people, half of them police, have been killed so far.

The crisis has been brewing since Aristide's party swept flawed legislative elections in 2000 and international donors froze millions of dollars in aid.

Aristide, a former priest of Haiti's slums who in 1990 became its first freely elected leader, has lost popularity amid accusations he condoned corruption, failed to help the poor and had thugs attack political opponents. He has agreed to a U.S.-backed plan that requires him to share power, but the opposition rejected the proposal, insisting he resign.

Many foreigners have fled the country.

Americans with M-16s guarded a convoy of U.N. workers and their families on the way to Port-au-Prince's airport Thursday, passing the barricades of wrecked cars, rocks and tires.

Military helicopters of the Dominican Republic, which shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti, ferried people from its embassy to the airport, which was packed.

American Airlines canceled flights to the United States, saying its workers couldn't reach the airport.

Haitians were fleeing their country in boats, but not in great numbers. The U.S. Coast Guard intercepted a dozen small craft carrying 546 Haitians near the Haitian coast this week, spokesman Luis Diaz said.

Associated Press reporters in Ian James in Cap-Haitien and Mark Stevenson and Paisley Dodds in Port-au-Prince contributed to this report.