PORT-AU-PRINCE, Nov 14 (AP) — Riot police fired tear gas at thousands

of rock-throwing protesters on Friday as a demonstration against President

Jean-Bertrand Aristide was overpowered by throngs of supporters of the

Haitian leader.

   Demonstrators scattered as tear gas canisters fell, and shots rang out

in the crowd. There were reports of at least two people injured and 30


   Civic groups planned the demonstration to urge social change. But more

than 8,000 Aristide partisans corralled the protesters into a small section

of gritty Port-au-Prince.

   Police separated the groups and fired tear gas when some protesters

lobbed rocks at each other.

   “We want a change and we want a better tomorrow, but we also want to

keep Aristide,” said Jean Robert, 36, waving a picture of Haiti’s embattled


   Tension has grown as Aristide struggles to break an impasse with an

opposition coalition that is refusing to participate in elections unless he

steps down. Countries including the United States are refusing aid to

Haiti’s government until the president holds legislative elections to

repair flawed balloting in a May 2000 vote.

   A coalition of civic groups is also demanding widespread changes,

including freedom of assembly.

   Before the demonstration began, dozens of the protest leaders —

including many vocal critics of Aristide — were arrested on weapons

charges when police stopped a trailer carrying a stage for the protest,

said Andy Apaid, a coalition coordinator.

   “Aristide made a choice today, a choice against democracy, and society

must draw the conclusions,” Apaid said.

   He said police found three guns on the trailer and arrested the leaders

for allegedly keeping weapons illegally. But Apaid said they had permits

for the guns.

   Police, who have been criticized in the past for preventing

anti-government protests, were vigilant on Friday in guarding both camps of

protesters. Still, many civic leaders were kept from the demonstration

during intensive vehicle searches.

   “The government has deliberately obstructed our right to assemble,” said

Lyonel Trouillot, a novelist and playwright.

   Despite losing pockets of support, Aristide has maintained popularity in

Port-au-Prince, where the former priest rose to power. Many of his

supporters criticize the opposition and the civic groups for being from

Haiti’s “light-skinned” and privileged upper class.

   “They have done nothing for the people. That’s why we blocked them,”

said Yves Derisine, 39, a plumber and Aristide supporter. “The only right

they have to speak is the right to speak for the majority.”

   The crowd chanted “Aristide for another five years,” holding photos of

the president and Haitian flags.

   Aristide has said he intends to served out his term, which ends in 2006,

and has defended his government, saying it has made efforts toward security

and progress despite many obstacles.

   A series of anti-government demonstrations have been staged over the

past two months to criticize deepening poverty and what protesters say is

the government’s failure to ensure security.

   Clashes during those protests have left more than a dozen dead and

scores wounded.

   “The country can’t be run by bandits,” said Phillip Jean, 39, who came

to support the civic groups Friday. “We want changes with security and we

want a lower cost of living.”