As Police Flee, Rebels Tighten Grip in Haiti's Heartland
By TONY SMITH
INCHE, Haiti, Feb. 20 — Hailed as liberators by thousands of chanting residents, four truckloads of rebel soldiers made a triumphal entry into this dusty town on Friday, ending a week in which they wrested control of Haiti's Central Plateau from the embattled government of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.
Based in the heart of the plateau's rich farmland, groups of about 60 rebel soldiers have made lightning raids on towns and villages across the region, ousting officials loyal to Mr. Aristide and putting the president's hated chimères — armed gangs used to the keep an iron grip on the populace — to flight.
"It's good they're here, I feel safe with them here," said Jenette Bienaimé, a young woman who turned out to welcome the rebel troops who waved Haitian flags as local bands played marching tunes on bamboo flutes and giant seashells. She said pro-Aristide gangs had routinely executed political opponents in Hinche (pronounced ANCH) and dumped their bodies in the river.
Haiti, the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, has been in political crisis since a disputed parliamentary election in 2000 in which Mr. Aristide's supporters were declared winners. The opposition has claimed fraud ever since, and huge protest marches over the past several months have called for the president to leave office. Mr. Aristide, however, insists he will complete his term, ending in February 2006.
In Port-au-Prince, the capital, on Friday, residents nervously prepared for Carnival, which runs for the next five days. The annual festivities usually draw thousands of visitors, but flights from New York and Miami were nearly empty. Urged by the United States to leave, Americans and other foreigners waited at the airport in lines hundreds deep. Some 20,000 Americans are registered with the embassy here, many of them Haitian-Americans and missionaries.
A march in the capital by several hundred students erupted into violence late on Friday afternoon when the students encountered a mob of militant government supporters, who fired shots and threw rocks. A Haitian radio journalist was shot twice in the back and was undergoing emergency surgery on Friday afternoon, and a student also suffered gunshot wounds, according to officials at Canape Vert Hospital.
The violence in Haiti erupted two weeks ago when a group of former chimères switched sides and seized control of the coastal city of Gonaïves. At least 60 people have died as the unrest has spread, with town after town in the central region falling to the rebels and virtually slicing the country in two.
Across the Central Plateau, police officers have fled, and their deserted stations have been burned and stripped bare of furniture and even roofing by local residents, who have welcomed the rebel troops with open arms.
"We received them well because they are the only ones who can rid us of this monster Aristide," said Simon Freddy, 27, a law student in the village of Maïssade, 12 miles west of Hinche. "He has disappointed everybody. We haven't benefited from his type of democracy."
The rebel troops arrived here on Friday, ostensibly to escort the first opposition rally allowed into this small regional capital of 25,000 since 1997, when Mr. Aristide barred protests by the opposition movement run by a former ally, Chavannes Jean-Baptiste. Their arrival was also intended as a show of strength to the government, whose seven police officers fled Hinche last Monday when the rebel troops first arrived. In a brief battle, the police chief, Jonas Maxim, and another officer were killed.
Falling back on Mirebalais, a town 30 miles south over treacherous unpaved roads, the police now say they have reinforced their presence in the region to 40 officers or more.
"We are ready for Hinche," said Clairvin Frantz, commander of the Mirebalais garrison. "If they send us, we'll go."
Yet many doubt the police can match the rebels in arms, training and motivation. "The chimères are fighting like cornered beasts," Mr. Jean-Baptiste said. "But they can't match the former army for training or tactics. If 500 ex-soldiers turned up at Port-au-Prince, there'd be no one there to resist them."
A burly former army captain known as Commander Ravix, who led the well-armed and apparently well-disciplined troops clad in camouflage into Hinche on Friday, said his troops were "not rebels, but representatives of the new Haitian army."
That claim seems to have echoed across the Central Plateau, where Haitians simply call the newly arrived rebel troops "Lame," — the Army in Creole, the Haitian language.
Their ardent support for an institution that, in the past, has been a tool of terror wielded by successive dictators and has already deposed Mr. Aristide once, in a 1991 coup, is a telling sign of just how unpopular the president has become.
"O.K., they might not be all good guys but Aristide's guys were worse," Mr. Simon explained.
Mr. Jean-Baptiste agreed. "At least the army doesn't fire on the people," he said, again referring to the rebel troops.
In the face of rebel advances this week, Paul Raymond, a top chimère leader, threatened to bring back necklacing — the execution of political opponents by placing a burning tire around their necks, and which has not been seen here in several years.
With Haiti's political future hanging in the balance, a reconstituted army would be yet another piece on an increasingly confusing chessboard shared by militias, gangs and myriad opposition groups.
"We are not allies," Mr. Jean-Baptiste said of the rebel soldiers. "We are on the same battlefield, we have the same opponent and the same objective but completely different methods."
Yet he acknowledged that the reconstituted army would be a force to be reckoned with and certainly stronger politically than individual groups of fighters. On Wednesday, Guy Philippe, another former army captain, declared that the forces of the Central Plateau were allying as the Haitian Liberation Front, with himself in command.
Three years after the 1991 coup, Mr. Aristide was restored to office by an American-led military invasion and he made the bold move of abolishing the army, dismantling its ranks and destroying its equipment.
In hindsight, however, he may have made a mistake in continuing to persecute former army officers, many of whom stashed their weapons and went into hiding — some, like Commander Ravix, in the Dominican Republic, which shares a porous 220-mile border with Haiti.
Now Commander Ravix and his men are recruiting among their old colleagues, some 500 of whom are thought to be in the government police force, according to one former security officer.
In Hinche, Augustin L'Ouverture, 52, a former army and police officer, said he planned to join the new force. He left the police, he said, because of the inhumane behavior of the chimères and "because they ended up paying us in rice and rum."
Ms. Bienaimé said her family had already sent word to her uncle, a former army officer in hiding in Port-au-Prince, that he could return home and enlist.
Faced with the rebel advance, the government is urging outside intervention, but so far the United States and France have insisted a multinational police force can only be dispatched once the government forges some sort of an agreement with the opposition to halt the fighting.
At this stage, such an agreement looks unlikely, with opposition parties and the rebel forces both insisting on Mr. Aristide's ouster and exile. A delegation including diplomats from the United States is scheduled to meet Saturday with Mr. Aristide to discuss a proposal to end the current impasse. Reuters reported Friday that the American ambassador to Haiti, James B. Foley, met Mr. Aristide and told him to accept a plan to install a new prime minister who could choose a new cabinet.
"What we are asking the international community for is not to reserve 50,000 beds in Guantánamo for refugees," Mr. Jean-Baptiste said, referring to rumors the United States was already preparing for a wave of refugees similar to the one caused by the 1991 coup.
"Just one bed would be sufficient," he said.
Lydia Polgreen contributed reporting to this article from Port-au-Prince.