Most businesses close in Haitian capital as strike called by Aristide opponents takes hold

Most businesses were closed in Haiti?s capital Thursday as opponents of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide answered a call for a two-day protest strike and stepped up demands for him to resign.

Traffic dwindled in the metropolitan area of 2.5 million people as most shops, banks and gas stations were shuttered.

“Everybody stay home ! Aristide has to go for Haiti to be saved !” said a radio spot broadcast over Haitian stations after the Democratic Platform, a coalition of opposition parties and civil groups, called the strike.

Haiti?s Chamber of Commerce encouraged its 200 members to strike. But government offices remained open, while buses kept running and vendors were out in the streets as usual.

“Strikes aren?t for us poor people. The majority voted for Aristide and want him to finish his term.” said Jean Oriol, 34, a market vendor selling used clothes.

The strike came a day after thousands of students and other Aristide opponents marched in a protest marred by clashes that left at least two dead and more than two dozen injured.

Many schools in Port-au-Prince had been scheduled to start classes on Tuesday but delayed the term?s opening due to the unrest.

Meanwhile, witnesses said, very few businesses joined the strike in northern Cap-Haitien, the Caribbean country?s second largest city.

Tensions have been rising in Haiti since Aristide?s Lavalas Family party won 2000 legislative elections that observers said were flawed. The opposition refuses to participate in new elections unless Aristide steps down, but he says he plans to serve out his elected term until 2006.

Aristide was once idolized by the vast majority of Haiti?s 8 million people, but his popularity has waned as critics say his government has failed to cope with deepening poverty and has quietly condoned violence against opponents.

Aristide has condemned violence and has defended his government, saying it has made advances while facing many obstacles. Last week he pledging new efforts to help ease poverty and heal other ills during celebrations marking Haiti?s 200th anniversary of independence.

Opponents last week also stepped up calls for his ouster, demanding he be replaced by a transitional government headed by a Supreme Court Justice and nine-member governing council.

Government officials, meanwhile, have accused opponents of fomenting a coup.

“The strike is insurrectionary,” said government spokesman Mario Dupuy, who accused opponents of instigating violence during Wednesday?s protests.

The clashes broke out when Aristide partisans armed with rocks and firearms attacked demonstrators and police opened fire amid the unrest. At least two people were shot and killed. News reports said 30 people were injured and being treated at hospitals.

Since mid-September, at least 44 people have been killed and more than 100 wounded during anti-government demonstrations across the country.