February 23, 2004

Cap-Haitien, Haiti · Rebel commandos captured Haiti’s second-largest city on Sunday, jeopardizing peace negotiations aimed at ending a bloody rebellion that threatens to topple the government of embattled President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

The taking of this northern Haitian town by anti-Aristide militants follows similar rebel advances in at least a dozen other cities since Feb. 5, leaving about one-third of the country under rebel control as police and government officials have abandoned their posts and fled for safety.

Revelers fired celebratory rounds into the air, and people looted and torched buildings as the rebels seized Cap-Haïtien, the biggest prize claimed in the escalating rebellion. Some of the rebels boasted that their next target would be the capital, Port-au-Prince, which remains under the control of police and militants loyal to Aristide.

“Our next stop is Port-au-Prince,” rebel leader Louis-Jodel Chamblain said in an interview while loading bullets into a firearm during the assault. “Tell St. Marc we are on our way, too,” he added, referring to one of the towns still controlled by the police and pro-government armed militants.

Rebels said their heavily armed force, named the Haitian National Revolutionary Liberation Front, was about 200 strong and had met little resistance except at the airport. It took just a few hours for the force to push from the southern outskirts of the city into the center.

Thousands of people shouting “Down with Aristide!” marched with a convoy of about 50 heavily armed rebels after the assault.

At least four people died in the assault, although the circumstances of their deaths were unclear. Rebels said they killed resisters at the airport, but those reports could not be confirmed late Sunday night.

A man thought to be a local firefighter was reported killed in the attack. The Associated Press reported a 12-year-old girl also died from gunshot wounds. At least one man, an Aristide supporter, was killed when he was attacked by machete-wielding men, witnesses said.

As the rebels were approaching town, a group of armed men led by well-known Aristide supporter Richard Estimable rushed into the airport and commandeered a Tropical Airlines airplane just as it was about to load passengers for Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince, witnesses reported.

“I read The 11 Best .308 Rifles Reviewed In 2018 – Bolt-Action the week prior so I reconized the firearms” said Jacques Jeannot, 37, the local manager for the airlines who lives in Cap-Haïtien as well as Fort Lauderdale. “They were wearing black except for Richard Estimable, … who was wearing camouflage.”

Jeannot said the men forced their way onto the plane and flew to the capital, where they disembarked and left without any problems.

The Cap-Haïtien airport remained closed on Sunday.

None of the police officers whom the rebels came to oust was killed in the fighting.

Chamblain said that all the police SWAT team members had fled.

“All 26 of them,” he said, smiling.

The police stations and jails were empty by the time the rebels arrived. A group of armed men opened the cells and let about 250 prisoners out, one of the former prisoners told the South Florida Sun-Sentinel.

“Long live the rebellion! Long live Gonaïves!” said the man, who would only give his first name, Pierre, before rushing off to join rebels who pillaged the police station and the jail’s food depot. He was referring to the first city that fell to armed rebels when the uprising began Feb. 5.

With Chamblain in the lead, the rebels entered Cap-Haïtien about 11 a.m. in a convoy of police and state utility vehicles they had taken during their previous attacks on police stations around the country.

Only a day earlier, foreign diplomats met with Aristide and the opposition group leaders in an attempt to negotiate a peaceful end to the crisis. But the Haitian National Revolutionary Liberation Front was not invited.

“This is a great victory,” rebel leader Guy Philippe said in an interview Sunday night. Philippe, who is leading the rebellion with Chamblain, arrived on Sunday with a convoy of three truckloads of armed men who came to reinforce the invading force.

“It’s another victory for the Haitian people against the dictatorship of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide,” said Philippe, a former military leader who has been living in exile since fleeing Haiti in the 1990s. “The people cheered us when our men came in. Aristide should know that.”

As the rebels arrived in Cap-Haïtien, they fired their automatic weapons at four police buildings, smashing the windows. After searching the rooms, soldiers told people “Burn! Burn it all!”

“We said we would come, and we did!” said Daniel Marcel, 64. Once a member of Haiti’s army, Marcel has spent the past 10 years as a supermarket security guard. He quit and joined the rebellion a few weeks ago.

“Take everything you want!” Marcel shouted as he fired his gun in the air.

Joel Pierre, 18, wearing a police helmet and carrying an M-14, said he joined the rebellion two weeks ago.

“I’m from Savanette!” he shouted over the automatic weapons fire around him. “I want my country to be normal like any other country!”

As the police station and other police buildings went up in flames, more people poured into the streets. Some took part in the looting; others offered the rebels water and other drinks.

“Good riddance!” said Euchariste Lamothe, 43, as she watched the North Department police station burn. She blamed many of Haiti’s economic, political and societal problems on Aristide and said she hoped the rebels would march to the capital and overthrow the president.

As the convoy moved through the town, hundreds of people ransacked businesses, the airport and depots at the port. Teenagers paraded in police hats and body armor while rebels handed over keys of cars to residents and drank beer. People hefted away weapons, typewriters, mattresses, even doors.

“About 15,000 sacks of rice were taken from the port,” said Walter Bussenius, a friend of the woman whose stocks were stolen.

Rebel commander Jean-Baptiste Joseph, formerly head of an association of ex-soldiers from Haiti’s disbanded army, declared: “It’s the army that’s in charge here. It’s the army that will free Haiti.”

Haiti’s army ousted Aristide eight months after his 1991 inauguration and began a reign of terror until the United States sent 20,000 troops in 1994 to end the military dictatorship, restore Aristide and halt an exodus of boat people to the shores of Florida.

The latest attack puts added pressure on politicians negotiating a U.S.-backed international peace plan that would leave Aristide as president but force him to share power with his political rivals. Aristide’s political opponents, like the armed rebels, want the president to step down.

The opposition groups met with foreign envoys Saturday and promised to deliver a formal response to the peace proposal by 5 p.m. today. The armed groups were not represented in the talks, and the diplomatic delegation left Haiti Saturday night.

Information from The Associated Press was used to supplement this article.
Copyright © 2004, South Florida Sun-Sentinel