- The Washington Times - Monday, February 9, 2004

From combined dispatches

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Rebels extended the area under their control to nearly a dozen cities and towns in western and northern Haiti yesterday, pressing their violent drive to remove President Jean-Bertrand Aristide from power.

The government received its first victory in the five-day revolt when police yesterday recaptured the vital port city of St. Marc, 45 miles northwest of the capital, Port-au-Prince. Shortly afterward, Prime Minister Yvon Neptune arrived in the city by helicopter to the shouts of support for Mr. Aristide. He assured residents that the government wanted to seek peace with the opponents through dialogue, not force.

At least 40 persons have died since Thursday, when insurgents in Gonaives, Haiti’s fourth-largest city, set a police station on fire, chased out police officers and sent government workers fleeing.

“We are in a situation of armed popular insurrection,” said opposition politician and former army Col. Himler Rebu, who had led a failed coup attempt against Lt. Gen. Prosper Avril in 1989.

The deaths were reported by the Associated Press, Red Cross official Raoul Elysee, rebel leaders Wenter Etienne and Jean-Yves Marcisse, and Haitian radio.

During the weekend, the rebels took St. Marc, where hundreds of people looted television sets, mattresses and sacks of flour from shipping containers. Reuters news agency said the rebellion had spread yesterday to Grand Goave and other towns southwest of the capital.

Residents barricaded several northern towns, using felled trees, burning tires and cars. Earlier yesterday, rebels blocking the road into St. Marc from Port-au-Prince had told reporters that if they entered the city, there would be no turning back; they would only travel deeper into rebel-held territory.

Funnels of black smoke rose above burning barricades in the city of 160,000, and gunfire could be heard from clashes between rival opposition groups.

The biggest rebel group is the Gonaives Resistance Front, formerly a gang of pro-Aristide toughs who terrorized government opponents. In Gonaives, they were joined by some former soldiers of the disbanded Haitian army.

The rebels also are supported by residents who have formed neighborhood groups disgruntled by mounting poverty, corruption and political crises.

Reuters reported that political opposition leaders met yesterday in Port-au-Prince to decide whether to align themselves with the gunmen. The government blames the opposition for the violence, and says it represents a small mulatto elite opposed to rule by the black majority.

Support for the government remains strong in some of the poorest provinces, where community leaders said yesterday that they were “fortifying” their towns against expected attacks from insurgents.

“It’s an open armed conflict now. It’s not a joke,” said Guy Delva, secretary-general of the Association of Haitian Journalists.

In Washington, the State Department condemned the violence and deplored the loss of life.

“We call on the government of Haiti to respect the rights of all citizens and residents of Haiti, and call on all Haitians to respect the rule of law,” said a statement by spokesman Richard Boucher. “Only through dialogue, negotiation and compromise can Haiti resolve its problems.”

Anger has brewed in Haiti since Mr. Aristide’s party won flawed legislative elections in 2000 and international donors blocked millions of dollars in aid. The opposition refuses to participate in new elections unless Mr. Aristide resigns; he insists on serving out the term, which ends in 2006.

In 1990, Mr. Aristide won Haiti’s first democratic election. He was ousted months later by the army, but was restored to power in a 1994 U.S. invasion. He disbanded the army and replaced it with a small civilian police force that is accused of being trigger-happy and partisan.

Meanwhile, in one of the bloodiest clashes in the rebel drive, 150 police tried to retake Gonaives on Saturday but left hours later after a series of gunbattles, witnesses said. At least nine persons were killed, including seven police officers.

Crowds mutilated the corpses of three police officers, according to AP. One body was dragged through the streets as a man swung at it with a machete, and a woman cut off the officer’s ear. Another policeman was lynched, and residents dropped large rocks on his body.

Early Sunday, an unidentified group of arsonists in the northern city of Cap-Haitien destroyed a two-story building that housed the studio of Radio Vision 2000, the independent Haitian broadcaster said.

Rebels continued to rule the streets of Gonaives yesterday, witnesses said, though it was not clear how many armed militants were in the city of 200,000.

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