The Miami Herald
December 19, 2001

Haiti opposition leaders in hiding after palace attack

Aristide foes: Coup was a ruse


 PORT-AU-PRINCE -- Opposition leaders remained in hiding Tuesday after supporters of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide responded to a reported coup attempt a day earlier with a rampage against government opponents.

 The palace was pockmarked with bullet holes, and television broadcasts showed scenes of destruction inside the building that resulted from the hours long gunfight early Monday morning. The capital, however, was surprisingly free of tension Tuesday as shops reopened and the customary chaotic traffic returned to the streets.

 The few opposition leaders available to speak with reporters insisted the attack on the palace was an elaborate charade designed to establish a pretext to crack down on Aristide's opponents.

 ``There is something very strange about this announcement of a coup d'etat, so strange that nobody understands it,'' said Suzy Castor, wife of opposition leader Gerard Pierre Charles. Their home in Petionville was among those attacked. ``Everybody is asking themselves, `What coup?' ''

 Castor said her husband had been out of the country at a gathering of party leaders and was due back in Port-au-Prince Monday. But flights were canceled and he has not be able to return, she said.

 She is convinced the attack by Aristide supporters was calculated. ``They came specifically looking for this house. They were armed and they had walkie-talkies that they were using to listen to orders.''


 At least eight homes and buildings were torched and ransacked in Port-au-Prince. A handful more were stormed by mobs across the country. A full tally of damage has not yet been confirmed, but there is a common thread among those structures that were targets: Most were linked with Aristide's political opponents.

 ``The so-called coup d'etat was a masquerade,'' opposition leader Evans Paul told The Associated Press. The former Port-au-Prince mayor's party headquarters were destroyed Monday -- for the third time in 10 years -- by Aristide supporters.

 Aristide was not at the palace early Monday morning, when authorities say 33 heavily armed men shot and killed two police officers and took over one wing of the building for seven hours before they fled. Two passersby were shot by fleeing attackers.

 Aristide, in what he called a ``message of peace'' following the violence, said Monday: ``We have thwarted the coup, but it's not all over.''

 Paul, who was Aristide's campaign manager in 1990 but now is a leader in the opposition coalition, pointed to what he called the ``absurdity'' of 33 men attacking the palace, which is guarded by hundreds of police officers.

 He also said it is widely known that Aristide rarely spends the night there.

 Authorities said one of the attackers was killed in a gun battle at the palace in central Port-au-Prince and a wounded gunman was captured at a roadblock near the border with the Dominican Republic. The rest escaped.

 Castor said the attack on her home occurred around 9:30 a.m. and lasted for about three hours, despite the presence of police who had been called to the scene. The family had left because word had spread that they were in danger.


 A group of about 100, including boys, attacked the two-story property after tossing Molotov cocktails over a high steel fence. Some had guns. Others wielded machetes.

 Inside, windows were shattered. Two vehicles blew up in flames. When it was over, everything was gone, including TV sets, clothes, even beds. Plants were chopped in half. Books were reduced to smoldering ashes.

 Aristide and the political opposition, the Democratic Convergence, have been locked in a yearlong dispute based on accusations of electoral fraud. The dispute has
 undermined the legitimacy of Aristide's government in the view of some international organizations and prevented foreign aid from reaching the country.

 Castor and others cited the absence of any sign of heightened security on the streets of the capital as evidence that the events of Monday were staged and that the
 government felt itself under no genuine threat of further attack.

                                    © 2001