Originally: Violent resistance to Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide engulfs more towns and villages, and police move to retake St. Marc, a key city.
SAINT MARC, Haiti – A bloody revolt against President Jean-Bertrand Aristide spread to nearly a dozen new towns Monday even as police launched a helicopter-borne assault to retake control of Saint Marc, an important port city.
In a show of bravado, and to affirm the government’s control over Saint Marc and the region, Prime Minister Yvon Neptune also flew to the city by helicopter for a brief visit and called the violence an attempted coup by “terrorists.”
By late Monday afternoon, government officials reassured all of Haiti that Saint Marc was firmly under government control. But witnesses said the fighting between police and rebels was fierce, with at least one civilian killed in the crossfire. And residents interviewed by telephone said the armed rebels still had a foothold in the town.
At least one man was killed by Aristide supporters in Saint Marc and two men were shot and wounded, The Associated Press reported. The dead man’s body was left by the side of a road.
U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said Washington was greatly concerned over the violence, which has claimed more than 40 lives since it erupted Thursday in the coastal city of Gonaives north of Saint Marc.
”The United States strongly condemns the latest wave of violence in Haiti,” Boucher said. “We deeply deplore the loss of life that occurred during the attacks in Gonaives, St. Marc and other cities. We call on the government of Haiti to respect the rights, especially human rights, of all citizens and residents of Haiti, and we call on all Haitians to respect the law.”
In a brief statement released by government spokeswoman Michelle Karshan, Michaele Lucius, the chief of staff for Haiti’s National Police, called for the restoration of peace.
AN APPEAL FOR CALM
Lucius ”called for calm and respect for each and every person without distinction, no matter what political party one is from,” Karshan’s statement said. “He emphasized the importance of the collaboration of the people in moving forward peacefully.”
But the armed rebellion against Aristide nevertheless widened, as radio stations reported that nearly a dozen more cities and villages north of the capital were taken over by government opponents.
The Associated Press reported that in the western town of Grand-Goave, some residents fled with belongings on their heads, a day after rebels evicted the police and torched the station. Insurgents also torched police stations in the northern towns of St. Raphael and Dondon, The AP reported.
Police stations have been targeted for attacks largely because they are usually thinly manned — the force totals some 4,000 policemen nationwide — and to seize the weapons kept there, although there have also been reports of looting amid the political violence.
Witnesses said armed Haitians opposed to Aristide also dug defensive trenches and built barriers from which they could fire their weapons in Gonaives and Saint Marc, the two most populous cities in the Artibonite region.
The dusty road that leads from the capital to Saint Marc and north to Gonaives was still blocked with old rusted car chassis and other car parts, felled trees and boulders. Residents smashed bottles in the roadways in a concerted effort to stop or at least slow advancing vehicles loaded with police.
On Saturday, approximately 150 police were sent from the capital to retake Gonaives from the insurgents. Their attempt failed as they came under heavy fire from the rebels, who were aided by many residents in the town of 200,000 people some 70 miles from Port-au-Prince.
By nightfall, police pulled back in what they described as a tactical retreat. Police leaders have been urging their officers throughout the country not to abandon their posts.
Aristide’s supporters and foes have been bitterly at odds since his Lavalas Family party won controversial legislative elections in 2000. Violence erupted in this abjectly poor nation of 7.5 million in December after some of the president’s supporters attacked opposition university students in December.
The uprising began Thursday when the Gonaives Resistance Front, an armed gang of thugs once known as the Cannibal Army, launched a full offensive against police stations and government buildings in Gonaives. Four police officers were killed and others were run out of town. The mayor and other Aristide supporters also were chased out, with the rebels burning homes and other property owned by Aristide allies.
The Cannibal Army was loyal to Aristide — and is said to have been armed by the government — until the murder last year of its leader, Amiot Metayer. His followers blamed the government for the killing — charging that Aristide wanted to keep him from telling all he knew about the government’s dirty work. Metayer’s supporters then all but seized control of Gonaives’ ring of slums.