The Miami Herald
Thu, Feb. 12, 2004

Police won't fire on rebels, Aristide says

Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide says he will not take drastic actions in trying to return peace to towns seized by armed groups demanding his resignation.


  PORT-AU-PRINCE -- President Jean-Bertrand Aristide on Wednesday said he would not take drastic actions to crush a bloody week-old rebellion that appears to have reached an uneasy stand off.

  Anti-Aristide gunmen killed one man and torched several homes as police sought to drive armed rebels from one of their last redoubts in the western port city of St. Marc, The Associated Press reported.

  Another victim was an alleged pro-Aristide militant in the central port of Gonaives, where the rebellion started, who was killed in a ''`necklacing'' -- bound in car tires and set aflame, the AP reported.

  But in his first news conference since the violence erupted Thursday, a subdued Aristide said he would go slow in trying to return peace to some of the dozen towns and villages seized by armed groups demanding his resignation.

  ''In our plan, dialogue is essential,'' he told foreign journalists, adding that he ``will not give any order to the police to open fire. We prefer to go slowly. We will not be willing to go fast and make mistakes.''

  Aristide acknowledged that Haiti lacks adequate police manpower. This nation of eight million has only a 5,000-strong force. By comparison, New York City, with a similar population, has a 62,000-member police force. The army was abolished after the 1994 U.S. invasion that restored the former priest to the presidency after a coup in 1991.

  But Aristide vowed he would not resign.

  ''I will leave the palace Feb. 7, 2006,'' he said, the end of his elected term, adding that the armed groups were simply ''terrorists'' being used by his political opponents -- who have steadfastly distanced themselves from the armed groups.


  In Washington, a State Department official told three Florida House members that U.S. agencies are discussing the possibility of putting 15,000 to 20,000 Haitians in the U.S. Naval Base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, in case of a massive exodus attempt -- although she stressed there's no evidence of such an exodus.

  Mary Ellen Gilroy, who heads the Caribbean desk, made the comments in a briefing for Miami Democrat Kendrick Meek, Palm Beach County Republican Mark Foley, Bartow Republican Adam Putnam and about a dozen staff members.

  U.S. officials also continued to deny American media reports that unidentified Bush administration officials have hinted that Aristide should resign as a way of resolving the 3-year-old political deadlock, and more recently the violence, sparked by disputed legislative elections in 2000.

  White House spokesman Scott McClellan stuck to the week-old line that Washington is concerned about the violence and wants the Haitian government to respect the human rights of its citizens but is not planning any specific actions.

  ''We fully support the efforts of the Caribbean countries and the Organization of American States to promote a peaceful resolution to the crisis in Haiti. So that's what we're doing,'' McClellan said of so-far unsuccessful mediating attempts by the 15-member Caribbean Community and the OAS.

  Wednesday's developments came amid signs that despite the new deaths, which pushed the death toll to about 45, the violence appeared to be leveling off in some of the dozen towns struck by the anti-Aristide gunmen, such as the northern city of Cap Haitien.

  The remnants of torched tires, beat-up cars and other debris used to block streets continued to clog the thoroughfares. Both pro- and anti-Aristide graffiti competed for
  attention on brightly painted but crumbling walls. And armed police officers stood guard at gas stations to safeguard dwindling supplies.

  But fear, mixed with confusion and uncertainty, lingered.

  Residents say private stations like Radio Vision 2000 have stopped airing broadcasts because of threats. Haitis privately owned media have been unsympathetic to Aristide and suffered scores of attacks from the president's followers.


  Some businesses remain shut down, fearing attacks by arsonists such as the one Monday that destroyed a restaurant owned by Charlot Remy, 44, a known Aristide opponent.

  He said pro-Aristide militants broke the locks, doors and windows, poured gasoline on the wooden tables, and dropped a lit match. Remy, who lives behind the eatery, fled.

  ``We want a new government because Monsieur [Aristide] cant make things work, Remy told a Herald reporter. ``You can be president, my friends can be president, anybody can be president -- but him.''

  Aristide was hugely popular when he was first elected in 1990, a former priest who promised to help the poor in one of the hemisphere's poorest nation. But his opposition has grown amid complaints of vote fraud and an authoritarian government that enforces its will by arming gangs of street toughs.

  It was one of those government-armed gangs, once known as the Cannibal Army, that started the rebellion last Thursday by attacking a police station in Gonaives. The gang turned on the president after the murder last year of their leader, which they blame on Aristide.