Cap Haitien, the second largest city, is captured with little resistance as the country braces for possible violence in Port-au-Prince today.
BY PETER ANDREW BOSCH
CAP HAITIEN, Haiti -- A mere 25 to 30 gunmen seized Haiti's second-largest city in a swift, one-hour firefight Sunday that sent police fleeing and handed President Jean-Bertrand Aristide the most stunning defeat of the 18-day-old rebellion.
Seven heavily armed pro-Aristide militants fleeing the attack hijacked a Tropical Airways plane waiting to take off from Cap Haitien for the Turks and Caicos Islands, and flew to the capital city of Port-au-Prince, officials said.
Another rebel attack overnight on a police station on the capital's northern outskirts -- the closest the rebels have come to Port-au-Prince in their push to topple Aristide -- left at least one wounded and fueled speculation that the rebels would next attack the capital today.
The stunning capture of Cap Haitien was the rebels' biggest prize yet in a fight that has left more than 60 dead and prompted a U.S.-backed international mission to intensify its efforts to force Aristide to surrender some of his power to his political opponents in hopes of easing Haiti's crisis.
Witnesses said 25 to 30 rebels aboard five trucks and cars attacked Cap Haitien around 11 a.m., and within one hour had seized control of the central Carenage area. A separate column of another 25 to 30 rebels joined them after the fighting was over, the witnesses said.
Most of the fighting appeared to have taken place around the airport, where rebels claimed to have killed eight men, but by the time they entered the central area the police had fled and left their stations empty.
Rebels first allowed residents to loot the stations, then set them on fire and moved on to the port, where thousands of people formed an ant-like line carrying out sacks of rice on their heads. One man carried a toilet.
The rebels also destroyed Radio Africa, owned by Nawoom Marcellus, a former parliament deputy from Aristide's Lavalas Family party, and Tele Konbit, a television station owned by Jose Elysse, an advisor to Aristide.
The rebels were members of the Haitian Liberation Front, one of two groups fighting to topple Aristide. It is led by Guy Philippe, a former Cap Haitien police chief, a drug-trafficking suspect and coup plotter who last week brazenly announced he would soon attack the city.
The threat by Philippe, whose fighters are mostly former members of the military abolished by Aristide in 1995, prompted armed Aristide supporters to set up barricades around the city and vow that they would make a stand, while panicky police retreated to their barracks.
Several Aristide supporters fled Cap Haitien aboard two motorboats as soon as the fighting started, said Anne-Claude Zephir, who runs a seaside restaurant.
''The people in charge here were simply outgunned and outmaneuvered,'' said one local journalist. ``All the police have left.''
Most of the city's 500,000 residents appeared to be staying home out of fear of looting and continuing gunfire, but thousands spilled out into the streets to chant ''Aristide must go!'' and rejoice in the flight of the pro-Aristide militants who had kept a brutal grip on the city.
''Tonight, I can walk on streets after 6 p.m. and be safe. Tonight I will be able to sleep,'' said one man who gave his name as John Lenon.
The attack left virtually all of northern and central Haiti outside the government's control, and again underlined the weakness of Haiti's 4,000-member police force, which has abandoned about two dozen towns since the rebellion began Feb. 5.
Tropical Airways manager Jacques Jeannot said seven pro-Aristide militants armed with AK-47s and machetes hijacked at 10 a.m. one of his Dash-8 turboprops that had been waiting to take off from Cap Haitien for Providenciales in the Turks and Caicos Islands and forced the pilot to fly them to the capital.
''The gunmen were walking up and down the ramp,'' said one man who witnessed the hijacking of the Haitian-owned airplane. ``All of a sudden these . . . heavily armed individuals boarded the flight and made them go to Port-au-Prince. We don't know who they were.''
Several panicky passengers quickly scrambled aboard a Fort Lauderdale-bound Lynx Air International flight out of the city.
''We had more people trying to get on the flight than we had seats,'' said a member of the Lynx Air flight that was greeted at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport by agents from the FBI and the Broward Sheriff's Office.
Earlier in the day, Cap Haitien Police Chief Charles Chily told The Herald that reinforcements were being rushed in from the capital. ''We are waiting,'' he said, as shooting between rebels and police continued.
But the fall of Cap Haitien into rebel hands was certain to cast a pall over the efforts by Washington, Paris, the Organization of American States and the Caribbean Community to broker an agreement between Aristide and his political opposition, who have distanced themselves from the armed rebels.
Aristide on Saturday accepted the international proposal, but the political opposition said it needed until 5 p.m. today to consider the deal, which would require them to give up their demands for the president's resignation.
Before the city fell, a senior Western diplomat in Port-au-Prince told reporters that opposition leaders ``are really risking everything by refusing the helping hand of the international community.''
''If they say no, they will have forfeited the support of the international community. [It's] a tremendous risk,'' he warned, although he seemed at a loss to explain what would be the next step.
''We're looking at that now,'' the diplomat said.
French officials have been pushing for an international peacekeeping force, with U.N., OAS or CARICOM approval, at least to stabilize the hemisphere's poorest nation.
Trenton Daniel, Jacqueline Charles and Carl Juste of The Herald contributed to this report.