An armed uprising against President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in northern Haiti was long planned as a way of removing his supporters.
BY MICHAEL A.W. OTTEY
PORT-AU-PRINCE -- It started as a trickle of armed clashes, then turned into a stream of death and destruction.
An unfolding armed revolt in Haiti last week was born of a calculated plan concocted by armed gangs opposed to President Jean-Bertrand Aristide to ''cleanse'' this impoverished land of his supporters.
Three men -- Winter Etienne, Jean Tatoune and Butteur Métayer -- are behind the deadly uprising. They call themselves liberators. Government officials call them ''terrorists'' and ``drug traffickers.''
''Bush is looking for [Osama] bin Laden, Aristide is looking for me,'' said Métayer as he stood with the others in an oceanfront shack in Gonaives, a four-hour drive north of the capital and the main town controlled by his men.
The revolt -- which took root five months ago with the assassination of Métayer's brother, gang leader Amiot Métayer, by alleged Aristide agents -- took its most deadly turn on Feb. 5, when Métayer's men assaulted police stations and government officials in Gonaives.
By the time the shooting stopped, and the current standoff between police and gunmen began, nearly 50 people were dead and the anti-Aristide gunmen held firm control of about three of the dozen or so towns and villages initially attacked.
With key roads blocked by the antigovernment militants, international relief agencies that daily feed more than half a million of Haiti's poorest are warning of a large-scale humanitarian crisis as fuel and food grow scarce.
''The population is suffering from that situation,'' said Prime Minister Yvon Neptune.
In one of the most unstable nations in the world, and the poorest in the Western Hemisphere, the violence has many people waiting and wondering if this is the beginning of the end for Aristide.
This latest wrong turn in Haiti's 200-year history should have caught no one by surprise, least of all Aristide's government.
On Jan. 10, gunmen assassinated Edner Jeanty, the North Department director of the Haitian National Police, in Cap Haitien, a northern port and the country's second-largest city.
And last month, the rebels brazenly announced they would begin ''cleansing'' Gonaives, Haiti's fourth-largest city with some 200,000 residents, and the rest of the surrounding Artibonite Valley of Aristide's ruling Lavalas Family party.
While the government stepped up its criticism of the armed militants' killing and arson spree, it did little or was powerless to stop the burning and the slaughter.
Aristide recently acknowledged that Haiti does not have an adequate police force -- now just several thousand strong -- to protect its eight million citizens and deal with widespread armed revolts all at once.
Aristide dismantled the army when he returned from exile in 1994, restored to power by a U.S. military invasion after a 1991 military coup that had toppled the former priest, Haiti's first democratically elected president.
With no army, Aristide sent a tactical police force -- the equivalent of a SWAT unit -- to Gonaives on Feb. 7 to put down the revolt by Métayer's Cannibal Army, now calling itself the Anti-Aristide Resistance Front for the Artibonite region.
But Métayer's men, joined by a number of former army soldiers, fought hard and crushed that counterattack. Seven police officers were reported killed in that battle, although the gunmen maintain they killed 14.
''The police had to withdraw tactically to avoid more bloodshed,'' Neptune said. ``For the time being we have control of the country.''
Métayer, Tatoune and Etienne embarked on their cleansing scheme by first going after members and sympathizers of Lavalas and torching just about anything they owned. They then went after police and government officials.
In two separate attacks in a single day, the home of Gonaives' public prosecutor and a Lavalas activist were torched.
In another attack, they killed one person and set fire to four homes belonging to Lavalas partisans.
Gonaives residents by the thousands rejoiced and danced in the streets when the gunmen took over the city and later named a new government and promised to export their armed battle to other cities and villages.
They made good on that vow. A dozen or so other towns and villages swiftly fell into the hands of the rebels as local police fled or were driven from their posts, though most were later abandoned or retaken by police.
Meanwhile, another armed faction in the port of St. Marc, just south of Gonaives, stormed the police station, burned it and took control of the seaport town. Looters took advantage of the chaos by making off with goods from shipping containers at the port.
The group, which goes by the acronym RAMICOS, had allegedly carried out its own reign of terror on Jan. 15 by setting fire to two local radio stations and attacking Aristide partisans.
18 TOWNS CLAIMED
The various armed groups, some working together, others acting alone, eventually would claim that they had taken control of 18 towns, including the crucial port of St. Marc, where again the government sent police to retake the city last week. Today the government controls most of the city, though parts appear to remain in the hands of the anti-Aristide gunmen.
The Gonaives revolt, meanwhile, reportedly prompted Aristide partisans in Cap Haitien to harass and attack members of the political opposition to the president.
Aristide's political opponents, seeking his ouster through more peaceful means amid complaints of his authoritarian ways and fraud in legislative elections in 2001, have tried to distance themselves from the gunmen but at least once referred to the gunmen's concerns as legitimate.
Philippe Zephir, whose La Kay seaside restaurant in Cap Haitien was torched by alleged Aristide supporters, said the arsonists apparently feared that the uprising in Gonaives would spread there.
''It was maybe they felt that something was going to happen. They started first,'' Zephir said.
Less clear is who is behind the attacks on several small-town police stations around the country since the revolt started.
Residents of Limbé, a small town 19 miles southwest of Cap Haitien, would say only that ''the population'' set aflame the police station last Monday because officers continued to threaten them.
The government has vowed to go slow and avoid unnecessary bloodshed in restoring calm to Haiti and claims that Haitians living under the anti-Aristide gunmen's control are becoming tired of the chaos surrounding them.
''The population that is cut off from the rest of the country is very concerned,'' Neptune said. But government officials, he added, ``want to be sure that no innocent victims are killed from any actions taken by the police.''
In Gonaives, Etienne, a 40-year-old who has appointed himself mayor of the city, said his gunmen are determined to fight off any attempt to reestablish government control.
''There are rumors the police is going to come,'' Etienne told journalists Friday. ``But if they come, they will come just to die.''
Herald staff writer Trenton Daniel contributed to this report.