Rebel Soldiers Take Control of Haiti's Central Plateau
By TONY SMITH
HINCHE, Haiti, Feb. 20 — Hailed as liberators by thousands of residents, four truckloads of rebel soldiers made a triumphal entry into this dusty town today, ending a week that has seen them wrest 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 Bienaime, who turned out to welcome the rebels forces waving 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 and dumped their bodies in the river.
Haiti, the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, has been caught in a political crisis since a disputed parliamentary election in 2000 won by Mr. Aristide.
The opposition has claimed fraud ever since, and huge protest marches over the past several months have called on the president to leave office. Mr. Aristide, however, insists that he will complete his term, which expires in February 2006.
Violence 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 in clashes as the unrest has spread across the country, with town after town in the central region falling to rebel forces and virtually slicing the country in two.
Deserted, burned-out police stations have been stripped bare of furniture and even roofing by local residents who have enthusiastically welcomed rebel troops.
"We receive them well because they are the only ones who can rid us of this monster Aristide," said Simon Freddy, a 27-year-old law student in the village of Maissade, 12 miles west of Hinche. "He has disappointed everybody," he added. "We haven't benefited from his type of democracy."
The rebel troops arrived here today ostensibly to escort the first opposition rally to be allowed into this small regional capital of 25,000 since 1997. But it 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, 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 are doubtful that the police can match the rebels in arms, training and motivation.
"The chimères are fighting like cornered beasts," said Chavanne Jean-Baptiste, a former Aristide ally, who now runs an opposition movement based near Hinche. "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."
Commander Ravix, a burly former army captain who led the well-armed, camouflage-clad and apparently well-disciplined troops into Hinche today, said his troops were "not rebels but representatives of the new Haitian army."
That claim appears to have found resonance all across the central plain, where Haitians simply call the newly arrived rebel forces "L'armée."
Their ardent support for a re-emerging 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.
In the face of rebel advances this week, Paul Raymond, a top chimères leader, threatened to bring back necklacing — the execution of political opponents by placing a burning tire around their necks.
With Haiti's political future hanging in the balance, a reconstituted army opposed to Mr. Aristide 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. "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 on the Gonaïves fighters 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 the mistake of continuing to persecute ex-army officers, many of whom stashed their weapons and went into hiding — some, like Mr. Ravix, in the Dominican Republican, which shares a porous 220-mile border with Haiti.
Now Mr. 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, a 52-year-old former army and police officer, said he planned to join the new force. He said he left the police because of the chimères's inhumane behavior and "because they ended up paying us in rice and rum."
Ms. Bienaime said her family had already sent word to her uncle, a former army officer in hiding in the capital Port Au Prince, that he could return home and enlist.
Faced with the advance of rebel forces, the government is urging outside intervention, but so far the United States and France have insisted that 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.
"What we are asking the international community for is not to reserve 50,000 beds in Guantánamo for refugees," said Mr. Jean-Baptiste, referring to rumors that the United States was already preparing for a wave of refugees similar to the one prompted by the 1991 coup. "Just one bed will be sufficient."