- The Washington Times - Monday, February 23, 2004

CAP-HAITIEN, Haiti — Rebels yesterday captured Haiti’s second-largest city with little resistance, claiming Cap-Haitien as their biggest prize in a two-week uprising that has driven government forces from half the country.

The fighters shot celebratory rounds into the air as residents looted and torched buildings, sending a pall of black smoke over the city of 500,000.

Flush with victory after the takeover, rebel leader Guy Philippe said he was setting his sights on the capital, Port-au-Prince.

“I think that in less than 15 days we will control all of Haiti,” Mr. Philippe told two foreign reporters in a Cap-Haitien hotel room as he swigged from a bottle of Prestige beer.

The rebel leader earlier had vowed to take the capital during carnival festivities that extend through tomorrow night.He told reporters that rebels in the capital are waiting for the signal to attack.

The capture of Cap-Haitien leaves less than half of Haiti under control of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s central government. As that reality set in yesterday, panic spread in Port-au-Prince.

Sources close to the Aristide government said several Cabinet ministers were asking friends for places to hide in case the capital is attacked.

Mr. Aristide, wildly popular when he became Haiti’s first freely elected leader in 1990, has lost support since flawed legislative elections in 2000 that led international donors to freeze millions of dollars in aid.

Opponents accuse the president of breaking promises to help the poor, allowing corruption fueled by drug-trafficking and masterminding attacks on opponents by armed gangs — charges the president denies.

The rebels say they have no political agenda beyond ousting Mr. Aristide. But the man who started the rebellion, Gonaives gang leader Buteur Metayer, on Thursday declared himself the president of liberated Haiti.

The rebels have made no effort to install any kind of control beyond halting a near-riot as residents rushed after food aid in Gonaives last week.

On the highway leading into Port-au-Prince from the north, Aristide supporters set up flaming barricades to block any rebel advance.

In Cap-Haitien, thousands shouting “Aristide fini” — Aristide is finished — marched along with about 40 rebels in commandeered cars.

“We’re free,” some yelled, ripping Aristide posters off walls.

Reporters saw three bodies on the streets, and doctors said a 12-year-old-girl was fatally shot. At least one rebel was wounded.

Earlier, about 10 armed men stormed the police station and freed about 250 prisoners. The police fled and the prisoners armed themselves, witness Ordil Jean said.

Mr. Philippe was an officer in the Haitian army when it ousted Mr. Aristide in 1991. The army instigated a reign of terror until the United States sent 20,000 troops in 1994 to end the military dictatorship and halt an exodus of boat people to Florida.

The Bush administration, which blames Mr. Aristide for the crisis, has made clear it has no appetite for another U.S. military adventure in Haiti.

Instead, diplomats on Saturday presented a U.S.-backed peace plan that was accepted by Mr. Aristide but resisted by the opposition coalition Democratic Platform, which says any plan must include Mr. Aristide’s resignation.

The opposition has said it will respond formally by 5 p.m. today.

“This is their last chance. If they say no, they are saying no to the international community,” a senior Western diplomat in Port-au-Prince said on condition of anonymity.

Still, that diplomat said there seems only a “slim possibility” the rebels would concede.

Under the plan, Mr. Aristide would remain president with diminished powers, sharing with political rivals a government that would organize elections.

Haiti’s ill-equipped and demoralized police force of fewer than 4,000 has been the main target of the insurgents, who have torched a score of police stations since the rebellion erupted Feb. 5. At least 40 officers are among the 70 persons killed since then. In the past week, police have been deserting their posts.

In Cap-Haitien, as the police headquarters burned, teenagers paraded in police hats and body armor. Rebels swigging from beer bottles handed over the keys of cars to residents. People hauled away weapons, typewriters, mattresses, even doors.

Thousands then converged on the port in a mad scene of looting. Some rolled away cars for which they did not have keys and loaded goods onto handcarts. One man packed sacks of rice onto a looted reclining chair and trundled it down the street.

“We’re all hungry,” said Jean Luc, an 11-year-old who had somehow strapped four 110-pound sacks of rice to a child’s bicycle and was trying to pedal it home.

Away from the euphoric scene around the rebels, residents bolted their doors and peered out from balconies onto streets littered with bullet shells.

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