The Washington Post
Monday, February 23, 2004; Page A01

Cap-Haitien Falls to Rebels

Anti-Aristide Forces Take Haiti's Second-Largest City

By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Foreign Service

Anti-government rebels took control of Haiti's second-largest city yesterday, turning the country's northern half into a bastion for insurgent forces seeking to topple President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

The attack on Cap-Haitien, about 100 miles north of the capital, Port-au-Prince, was the rebels' most significant victory in a nearly three-week armed uprising that has spread across much of the impoverished nation. In taking Cap-Haitien, rebels said their force of about 200 fighters met resistance only at the city's airport, where they said eight militant civilians loyal to Aristide were killed in a gun battle, according to the Associated Press.

"I think that in less than 15 days we will control all of Haiti," a rebel leader, Guy Philippe, was quoted as saying.

The rebel advance came a day after an international delegation led by Assistant Secretary of State Roger Noriega, the top U.S. diplomat for Latin America, left without an agreement from mainstream opposition leaders to join a peace plan designed to end Haiti's political violence. About 60 people, most of them poorly equipped police officers, have been killed this month in clashes between government and rebel forces.

Facing the gravest threat to his three-year-old government, Aristide, a former priest elected most recently in 2000, agreed Saturday to share power with a broad civic opposition movement that has been demanding his resignation for months. But the opposition coalition of business associations, university students and human rights groups reacted coolly to the agreement, which would keep Aristide in power, and said it would not make an official pronouncement until this afternoon.

A State Department spokesman last night condemned the attack on Cap-Haitien, saying the Bush administration considers change through violence unacceptable.

The spokesman said Secretary of State Colin L. Powell telephoned a Haitian opposition leader, Andre Apaid Jr., after the talks ended Saturday and urged him to accept the agreement.

"We hope the democratic opposition will seize this opportunity to build an independent government with the support of the international community," the spokesman said tonight. He said Aristide "will be held to his commitment."

But the attack on Cap-Haitien underscored how little practical effect the U.S.-sponsored plan has had on the real opposition power -- the rebel forces taking orders from former Haitian military leaders who have long opposed the populist president. Over the past three weeks, rebel gains have marginalized the civic opposition and left the fate of the country of 8 million people largely in the hands of a motley armed movement with little political ideology and the tactics of a street gang.

"We will not accept them taking power in Port-au-Prince," a Western diplomat told reporters in the capital, according to the Reuters news agency. "If they prove successful, they will be unable to translate military victory into a political solution."

The rebel victory culminated two weeks of rebel attacks on towns around Cap-Haitien, and suggested that armed pro-Aristide gangs would not stand and fight for their leader in the face of a concerted offensive. Aristide's frail government, whose police force has withered due to lack of resources, has come to rely on its armed civilian supporters to defend it from rebel attacks.

A recent visit to Cap-Haitien, once a tourist magnet, revealed a city under siege. Fuel shortages caused a prolonged blackout, affecting everything from water-pumping stations to public hospitals suddenly forced to turn patients away.

The appointed governor of the northern district, Myrto Julien, said last week that the government had regained the upper hand after 10 days of rebel attacks and that life in the city of 500,000 would soon return to normal. Pro-Aristide gangs used burning barricades, curfews and armed patrols to keep the rebels out.

Gunfire crackled throughout the city yesterday and an overwhelmed police force fled before roughly 200 rebels, according to news reports from the city. Rebels seized the airport, forcing the suspension of flights to and from the capital. A group of Aristide supporters commandeered a small commercial airplane before the airport closed to make their escape, the reports said.

Aristide became Haiti's first freely elected president in 1990, four years after he helped topple the Duvalier family dictatorship as a Catholic priest from the capital's slums. But he was ousted by a military coup 10 months after he was elected.

A U.S. force of 23,000 troops restored him to the presidency in 1994. One of his first measures was to dissolve the Haitian military, which has been involved in more than 30 coups in the country's 200-year history. Aristide was reelected in November 2000, several months after his Lavalas party swept legislative elections later deemed fraudulent by international observers.

The result has been the suspension of hundreds of millions of dollars in international aid to Haiti. Aristide's opponents have accused him of failing to carry out necessary political and economic reforms. They also accuse Aristide of corruption and of using political intimidation. Aristide has denied the charges and in a recent interview labeled the movement seeking to oust him "a terrorist opposition."

The spreading insurrection is being engineered by members of the now-defunct army that has opposed Aristide since his days as an opposition leader. The taking of Cap-Haitien means the most important cities in northern Haiti are in rebel hands, giving its leaders even less incentive to seek a solution that does not include Aristide's resignation.

Philippe, the leader of the assault on Cap-Haitien, received military training in the United States before joining the Haitian National Police, a 5,000-member force established to replace the army after Aristide's return.

The police force has dwindled to roughly 3,000 officers, not nearly enough to move against rebels now entrenched in Haiti's fourth-largest city, Gonaives, or in Cap-Haitien and the strategic central plateau that is a prime supply corridor to the Dominican Republic.

Staff writer Peter Slevin contributed to this report.

© 2004