Protests, violence paralyze Haitian cities
Tens of thousands of protesters in Haiti demonstrate against President Jean-Bertrand Aristide; at least five reportedly are killed in clashes with police.
BY JANE REGAN AND MICHAEL A.W. OTTEY
PORT-AU-PRINCE -- Massive and sometimes violent protests shook much of Haiti Thursday as tens of thousands of anti-government demonstrators took to the streets to demand President Jean-Bertrand Aristide's resignation.
Four local radio stations -- Radio Carabes, Radio Metropole, Vision 2000 and Radio Kiskeya -- suspended broadcasts after death threats and a drive-by shooting at Radio Carabes, The Associated Press reported. Station owners said Aristide supporters promised a night of terror.
The demonstration was one of the largest in a decade, with some estimates placing the marchers at as many as 50,000.
Schools and businesses closed as the student-led protest wended its way through the capital, stopping near the Presidential Palace and the offices of the Organization of American States.
In Gonaves, a local radio station reported that police shot and killed anti-Aristide protesters, with five confirmed deaths and at least 12 injured, however there was no independent confirmation of the casualties.
There were no confirmed reports of deaths in Port-au-Prince.
At the Presidential Palace, riot police fired warning shots and tear gas at demonstrators. Police also fired machine guns and handguns in the air, causing panic.
When protesters passed in front of the state telephone company, where several well-known pro-government activists receive paychecks, marchers demanded that salaries to the chimere, or thugs, be stopped.
In front of the state television company, which has frequently been accused of one-sided, pro-government reporting, they chanted, ``Look at the minority!''
Protesters also chanted slogans against the Organization of American States, accusing the group of supporting Aristide and doing nothing for Haitians.
Aristide, who has condemned the violence, referred to protesters as ``a small minority.''
Some government leaders have said the demonstrators are seeking to spoil state-sponsored celebrations of Haiti's bicentennial on Jan. 1 in Port-au-Prince and Gonaives.
University of Haiti students, 15,000 strong, have become increasingly critical of Aristide in recent weeks, accusing his administration of corruption, human rights violations and ignoring the needs of students.
They called for another protest today.
''What has happened is unacceptable,'' university professor Frantz Varella, who was Aristide's former minister of public works, told The Associated Press. ``These young people aren't politicians. They are the intellectual elite of the future in revolt against the intolerable.''
Thursday's march came one week after Aristide supporters attacked an anti-government rally of university students, injuring dozens and ransacking two colleges.
The U.S. Embassy, the OAS, Amnesty International and dozens of organizations denounced the attack, which left over two dozen injured and the university dean hospitalized.
Bands of armed Aristide supporters reportedly roamed the capital seeking out anti-government protesters. Aristide backers have clashed with students and other anti-Aristide demonstrators for months, causing serious injury and property damage. University of Haiti Rector Pierre-Marie Pacquiot was among the injured.
Aristide, in his second term, also appeared to be losing support among members of his Cabinet. Education Minister Marie-Carmel Paule Austin, who had been a minister for about a year, resigned late Wednesday night, expressing anger over the attacks on the student protesters.
University deans also issued a letter condemning the attacks and called on Aristide to step down. It was the first time the deans had issued a unified call for the president to resign.
The government said Austin was using Wednesday's violent attacks on demonstrators and police failure to stop attacks to save face.
''She knew she was going to be replaced because she is under investigation for misappropriation of funds,'' said Mario Dupuy, a government spokesman.
Austin could not be reached for comment.
Paul Antoine, an Aristide spokesman, told The Herald on Thursday that Aristide condemned the violence on all sides.
He said the students, however, had armed thugs in their midst who were also responsible for violence.
Antoine said Aristide asked the police to conduct a thorough investigation of the matter and to arrest those responsible for the attacks.
Thursday's march grew in size and lasted for more than eight hours, as people came off their stoops and closed their businesses to join the demonstration.
They carried branches -- the traditional sign of victory -- and chanted anti-Aristide slogans.
PUSH FOR CHANGE
''This has gone on long enough,'' said Theodore ''Lolo'' Beaubrun, who heads the well-known Haitian roots music band Boukman Eksperyans. ``It's time for Aristide to step down and we need a lot of other changes, too, in order for Haiti to become a democracy.''
Beaubrun was among the thousands of people who joined the march.
Businessman Anderson Laforet said he closed his office and joined the students because of his ties to the university.
''I was once a university student,'' said Laforet, marketing director at a technology firm, as he marched toward the National Palace in a sea of students. ``The attack on the university was unacceptable!''
Laforet was surrounded by tens of thousands of men and women who waved
branches and holding homemade signs, who chanted: ''Down with Aristide!
You'll be gone by the weekend!'' and ``Aristide -- look at the minority!''