Aristide isolated, Haitian capital in turmoil
PORT-AU-PRINCE (AFP) – Rebel forces virtually isolated President Jean Bertrand Aristide in the Haitian capital where looting and killings were reported as international pressure mounted on the beleaguered leader to quit.
Armed fighters who have vowed to oust Aristide took over Mirebalais, less than 60 kilometers (35 miles) from Port-au-Prince. They took Cayes, the country’s third largest city, on Thursday night.
In the capital, Aristide loyalists put up barricades around the presidential palace as hundreds of people looted warehouses at the port and the bodies of at least three men — all shot in the head execution-style — lay on one street.
Witnesses said the bodies of other revenge killings were seen in the streets, but the death toll was unclear.
A gas station was attacked and left in flames and several cars were attacked. One driver said his car was stoned and he had to make an emergency reverse manoeuvre to escape. “We were lucky to get away alive,” said the man.
France led new calls for Aristide, a former priest in the shantytowns of the capital, to hand over to a transitional government to prevent a slide towards “uncontrolled” bloodshed.
“It’s for President Aristide, who bears a heavy responsibility in the current situation, to draw the consequences of the impasse,” French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin told Haiti’s Foreign Minister Joseph Philippe Antonio and other officials from the Aristide government at a meeting in Paris.
The United States and Canada have also signalled an end of support for the elected president and called on him to consider his future.
Mirabalais fell into rebel hands early Friday. Gunfire could be heard in the city of 140,000 people but there were no immediate reports of casualties, a local journalist told AFP. Rebels freed 67 inmates in the local prison who ran cheering into the streets.
Mirebalais and Saint-Marc, 96 kilometers (60 miles) north of here, are the two closest cities to Port-au-Prince. Only Saint-Marc remained under the nominal control of police loyal to Aristide.
Rebel leader Guy Philippe, has said Port-au-Prince is surrounded and that his fighters are just waiting for an order to seize the capital.
Aristide received no sign of encouragement from the Paris meeting between his representatives and the French foreign minister.
“More than ever, it is time the Haitians work to put in place a transitional government of national unity, tasked with national reconciliation,” under the terms of an internationally supported plan, French foreign ministry spokesman Herve Ladsous said after the meeting.
France, the United States and Canada all agreed on this course of action, he added.
“From now on, each hour counts if we are to avert a spiral of violence that would be uncontrollable,” de Villepin was quoted as telling Aristide’s representatives, who made no comment after.
The United States and Canada signalled Thursday that it is time for Aristide to resign.
“I hope President Aristide will examine his position carefully and that judgments will be made as to what is best for the people of Haiti in this most difficult time,” said US Secretary of State Colin Powell (news – web sites) in Washington.
“He is the democratically elected president, but he has had difficulties in his presidency, and I think, as a number of people have commented, whether or not he is able to effectively continue as president is something that he will have to examine,” Powell added.
Canada’s Foreign Minister Bill Graham said the worsening situation in Haiti had forced the international community to consider “other scenarios.”
“So it is perhaps best for Mr Aristide to look at his responsibilities toward his people and say: ‘Look it would be better that I, voluntarily, I leave’,” said Graham.
Powell said he had been in contact with other nations “to begin putting together a police force, a security monitoring force that would go into Haiti, once there is something to go into Haiti on, and that is some sort of political resolution.”
The UN Security Council held a special meeting on Haiti on Thursday but only announced that it would consider giving a mandate to an international force. UN Secretary General Kofi Annan (news – web sites) named veteran Trinidad and Tobago diplomat Reginald Dumas as special advisor on Haiti.
Despite the pressure mounting, Aristide reaffirmed that he was determined to finish his five year term.
“I will leave the palace on February 7, 2006, which is good for our democracy,” he told CNN television on Thursday. “We have had 32 coups d’etat and that is enough.”
Aristide renewed calls for international support against the insurrection, and warned there could be thousands of dead and a mass exodus unless a peaceful resolution is urgently found.
US authorities said they had already intercepted 500 Haitians in the past two days in the seas off the troubled Caribbean country.