Monday, February 9, 2004; Page A14

ST. MARC, Haiti, Feb. 8 — Embattled Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide faced his most serious challenge in months of anti-government protests Sunday as an armed revolt spread to several more cities in the impoverished Caribbean nation.

Hundreds of looters in the port of St. Marc stripped shipping containers of television sets, radios and corn flour, then set the empty containers ablaze, a day after outnumbered police were forced to flee armed gangs.

Barricades were thrown up in the sprawling slums and streets of St. Marc, the largest town on the road north from the capital, Port-au-Prince, to the country’s fourth-largest city, Gonaives, where police tried unsuccessfully Saturday to restore control after being driven out two days earlier.

Youth gangs, many of whose members carried handguns tucked under their T-shirts, controlled all traffic to and from Gonaives.

Police stations were attacked in the cities of Trou de Nord, Listere and Grand Goave, independent Radio Metropole said.

The main police station in St. Marc was a smoking ruin Sunday. The neighboring courthouse was also destroyed. Residents said two bystanders died when police tried to defend their outpost against an attack on Saturday. The city’s pro-Aristide mayor fled town, as did other supporters of the ruling Lavalas Party, residents said.

“We’re just waiting for Aristide to go,” said Louis Andrel, a gang leader with apparent clout in a city that appeared to be run by rival, but for now united, armed bands.

“Step by step, town by town. When we have all the departments, we’ll go down to Port-au-Prince,” Andrel said.

Residents looked on nervously, refusing to be identified by name. “People are scared. The ones who are out in the street aren’t, because they’re the ones with the guns,” said one man.

Gonaives, a city of about 200,000 people, was taken over by an armed group after an assault on police headquarters and other government buildings on Thursday and Friday. Seven people were killed.

Aristide, a former Roman Catholic priest once regarded as a champion of the country’s fledgling democracy but now accused by opponents of corruption and political thuggery, is under pressure to resign halfway through his second term.

The revolt has come after months of sometimes violent anti-Aristide demonstrations in Port-au-Prince and other cities in Haiti, a country of about 8 million people that has suffered repeated civil wars and dictatorships since independence 200 years ago, and two U.S. invasions.

Prime Minister Yvon Neptune on Sunday accused the opposition of fomenting a coup.

“It is not the government that is organizing the violence,” he told local broadcast media.

Micha Gaillard, spokesman for opposition group Democratic Convergence, said Aristide had only himself to blame for the violence in Gonaives