PORT-AU-PRINCE, Feb 20 (AFP) – At least 14 people, including two journalists, were wounded here Friday when supporters of embattled Haitian President Jean Bertrand Aristide clashed with protestors demanding his resignation as the country?s violent political crisis escalated. The situation in the capital deteriorated as an urgent US-led diplomatic push opened in a bid to resolve the long-running dispute that has been exacerbated by a more than two-week-old armed insurgency in the north and center of the country in which some 57 people have been killed. Meanwhile, Canada joined the United States in urging its nationals to leave Haiti as soon as possible while regular commercial air service is still available and a US military team was expected in Port-au-Prince to assess the security of the US embassy here. A steady stream of Americans and other westerners were seen arriving at the capital?s Toussaint l?Overture International Airport on their way out of the country on Friday and a US embassy official said 69 Peace Corps volunteers were evacuated to the neighboring Dominican Republic. At the demonstration, members of a pro-Aristide gang opened fire on a crowd of about 1,000 student demonstrators with birdshot and rocks injuring 13 people, including a Haitian radio reporter was covering the protest, according to witnesses. A 14th person, a Spanish television cameraman whose exact identity could not immediately be determined, was wounded by a machete blow to the side of his head that hit one of his ears, the witnesses said. The extent of the injuries was not immediately clear. An AFP photographer at the scene said some appeared serious but not life-threatening. The photographer and other witnesses at the scene said all the wounded had been taken to a hospital in the capital?s Canape Vert district where the demonstration took place, and that clashes had continued after the initial attack. Aristide supporters then surrounded the hospital and refused to leave the area, trapping the wounded inside and blocking emergency vehicles, including an International Committee of the Red Cross truck, from approaching, witnesses said. Police later dispersed the crowd and Aristide?s government quickly condemn the attack, although it insisted the demonstration had been illegal. “The government condemns these acts of violence that occurred during this illegal demonstration,” said Mario Dupuy, secretary of state for communication, adding that criminal charges would be brought against those responsible. The protest began as international diplomats opened urgent talks with Aristide and opposition leaders in an effort to resolve the crisis. Disarming the pro-Aristide gangs, made up mainly of poor slum dwellers from Port-au-Prince and other localities, is a key demand of the US, Canadian, French and Caribbean Community (Caricom) diplomats who fear that militants may use the annual Carnival festivities as a pretext to intensify their activities. In an apparent bid to restore a sense of normalcy, Aristide announced that Carnival will be observed this year over five national holidays, instead of the usual three, to commemorate the 200th anniversary of Haiti?s independence, which was celebrated last month. But that move was unlikely to sway the diplomats, whose presentation will be reinforced on Saturday, when a team of more senior US, Canadian, French and Caricom officials fly to Haiti for additional talks to stave off a possible descent into anarchy in the poorest nation in the Americas. In addition to disarming the mobs of Aristide?s Lavalas Family political party supporters, the peace plan calls for the president, who has repeatedly dismissed calls for his resignation, to cede significant powers, including control of the police, to a new independently appointed government and prime minister. But, it allows the former Roman Catholic priest to stay in office through the remainder of his current term, which ends in 2006, according to diplomatic sources here. In Washington, White House spokesman Scott McClellan said the plan does not call for Aristide?s departure but declined to offer details of the proposal. Diplomatic sources here, though, said it lays out a formula for creating a new government and post of prime minister who would have direct authority over an internationally trained and supervised police force. It calls for the creation of a three-person panel — comprising one Aristide representative, one member of the opposition and an international official — that will be charged with selecting a larger nine-to-15-member council that will then name a prime minister and a new government, the sources said. However, Aristide has thus far rejected suggestions for a prime minister, and diplomats say they fear the opposition may dismiss the proposal, as it stops short of meeting their demands for the removal of the president, who has ruled by decree since a crisis over flawed parliamentary polls two years ago left the country with no legislature in January. Complicating the situation is the presence of the armed insurgents — many of them ex-soliders in Haiti?s army, which Aristide disbanded in 1995 after a coup — who have been mounting hit-and-run raids on Haitian cities since earlier this month. The insurgents have been described by US Secretary of State Colin Powell and other diplomats as “thugs” and are excluded from the power-sharing plan but have threatened to march on Haiti?s second-largest city of Cap Haitien and the capital if Aristide is not forced to resign. But Aristide maintains that the rebel threats are a bluff and has implored police officers — who number only about 5,000 in this country of 8.3 million — to battle the insurgents. Clashes between police and the rebels began on February 5, when insurgents stormed and occupied the police station and other buildings in the northern city of Gonaives. The rebels have since expanded their reach to the southeast and center of the country. On Friday, police, frightened by persistent rumors of a rebel approach, abandoned their posts in the coastal town of Fort Liberte, east of Cap Haitien, where the local population then looted the police station and set fire to the customs house and port authority office, according to residents

  Matthew Lee