Rebels attack cops sent to Gonaives
The number of dead and wounded in the political violence is unclear, and the Haitian government has not yet been able to restore order.
BY MICHAEL A.W. OTTEY
GONAIVES, Haiti - Tactical police forces were unable to regain
control Saturday of this seaport city from armed opponents of President
Jean-Bertrand Aristide. A
firefight left several people dead and wounded.
The exact number could not be confirmed in the ensuing chaos, but the Red Cross reported at least four casualties. Rebel forces reported killing 14 police officers and 11 other people. Other sources put the number of dead officers at between two and nine.
People were seen dragging one officer's body through the street as a man swung at it with a machete, The Associated Press reported. Another policeman was lynched, and residents dropped a large rock on his corpse.
It was the worst day of clashes since a political crisis erupted in September over disputed May 2000 legislative elections. Opposition groups have called for Aristide to step down and call new elections. Aristide has refused to do so before his term ends in 2006.
Rebel forces took control of the city of 200,000 people on Thursday,
after they stormed police stations and burned homes and other property
belonging to Aristide
On Saturday, a convoy of about 150 heavily armed police officers
entered the city, a government official said. The convoy was pelted with
rocks and eventually
surrounded after thousands of residents blocked the roads with boulders, discarded car parts, burning tires and an overturned bus.
After several hours of gunfire, the Gonaives Resistance Front said it still controlled the city. There was no word from local officials or police on the status of the city.
Some of the rebels showed off weapons that included assault rifles and pistols they said Aristide gave them or that they took from police stations Thursday.
The rebels were once supporters of Aristide, but they turned against him in September after their leader, Amiot Metayer, was assassinated. They blame Aristide for his death. He has denied being involved.
The government tried Saturday to make good on its promise to retake Gonaives.
Government spokesman Mario Dupuy called the rebels terrorists and said the government would respond to protect the citizens of Gonaives.
But many residents said they no longer support Aristide and took to the streets by the thousands chanting ``Aristide must go!''
''What's happening here concerns all of Haiti,'' said Jude Moise, 37, an electrician. ``Naturally, I'm here for change.''
Moise, who said he once supported Aristide, branded the president a terrorist.
''I fought too hard for him and I regret I gave my life for him,'' Moise said. ``Now we are ready to kill all of the police that he sends here with the weapons that Aristide gave us. We're ready to die.''
Moise said Aristide maintains he enjoys the support of the majority of Haitians and that it's only a minority calling for his resignation. But that is not the case, Moise said: "We're not a minority.''
Other cities did not escape unrest. In Saint-Marc, members of an anti-Aristide group called the Assembly of St. Marc Militants were seen carrying assault weapons. Local radio stations reported that there were no police officers in the city.
Aristide attended a rally of thousands of supporters in Port-au-Prince
on Saturday to mark the third anniversary of his inauguration as president
for a second term.
Opposition groups plan their own demonstrations in the capital and other cities today.
Aristide said those responsible for the Gonaives violence ``will be arrested and judged according to the law.''
The Organization of American States and the U.S. Embassy issued statements denouncing the violence.
''All political changes, be they in Gonaives, in the North or elsewhere in Haiti, must be done peacefully and democratically,'' the OAS statement said. ``The response to violence is not more violence but the state's respect for law and human dignity.''
Correspondent Amy Bracken contributed to this report from Port-au-Prince.