Police in Haiti fire tear gas as armed protesters take over streets, call for national uprising
By The Associated Press
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti -- Thousands of protesters in Gonaives city hurled stones and thrust back riot police who fired tear gas in vain Monday as militant community leaders, some once loyal to Jean-Bertrand Aristide, called for a nationwide uprising to oust Haiti's president.
''Today the people have taken possession of Gonaives,'' protest
leader Jean Tatoune said by telephone from the west-coast city 60 miles
(100 kilometers) from
Port-au-Prince, the capital. ``Aristide has to go.''
He was one of 159 prisoners who escaped Friday when armed supporters crashed a stolen tractor through Gonaives prison wall.
The gunmen set fire to city hall and the courthouse that day, leaving only charred ruins.
On Monday, the thousands of demonstrators vastly outnumbered about two dozen riot police who fired tear gas but were forced to retreat, said reporter Jean-Claude Noel of independent Radio Vision 2000.
Protesters threw stones, he said, and yelled ``Down with Aristide!''
Some demonstrators stole a police car, Noel said.
But no one was reported injured, even as shots rang out sporadically from both sides.
''We are fighting to save the country,'' political activist Amiot Metayer, another prison escapee, said on Radio Metropole. ``All nine districts of Haiti must unite to oust Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Liberty or death!''
Aristide's party, meanwhile, played down the threat posed by the protesters in Gonaives, Haiti's fourth largest city with 200,000 people.
''It is a small group of armed men that the police should deal with. One should not dramatize the situation,'' said party spokesman Jonas Petit.
Tatoune, 44, was an important figure in the popular uprising that forced dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier into exile in 1986. A longtime Aristide opponent, he had been serving a life sentence for involvement in the 1994 killings of at least 15 Aristide supporters in Gonaives.
On Monday, he said the insurrectionists had contact with activists in other parts of the Caribbean nation of 8 million people.
Meanwhile, armed protesters blocked roads leading to Gonaives with flaming tire barricades, witnesses said.
Prison system director Clifford Larose said three people who got away in Friday's jailbreak were captured over the weekend, but the rest remained free.
The apparent inability of police to restore order is another
sign of growing lawlessness taking a grip in Haiti, which has been bedeviled
by dictatorships and power
struggles since it's independence from France in 1804.
Metayer was an Aristide ally until he was jailed July 2 on charges of burning down houses of a rival group. He insists he is innocent.
Metayer and his heavily armed supporters want a new interim government, fresh elections and higher wages for police and other workers. Government officials rejected the demands.
''Poverty breeds delinquents who exploit the poor population,'' Prime Minister Yvon Neptune said. ``We are on the side of the poor, not the delinquents.''