Eight killed as police fight militants for control of Haiti’s fourth-largest city

By Jane Regan

GONAIVES, Haiti — At least eight people were reported slain in gunbattles, ambushes, lynchings and drive-by shootings Saturday as Haiti’s government-backed police tried to retake control of this port town seized by rebels three days ago.

There were reports that police apparently fled their posts in several other cities, including Trou du Nord, Gros Morne, Marchand Dessalines, St. Michel de l’Attalaye, Ennery, L’Estère and St. Marc — all small towns whose forces are under the control of the Gonaives police station, which fell to by rebels Thursday. Most of those cities are in Haiti’s Artibonite province

By noon, the Haitian government announced its officers were in control of Gonaives, but police fled hours after they arrived and gunfights continued throughout the town.

In St. Marc, an important port town south of Gonaives, armed men attacked the police station and chased officers away. Angry crowds trashed the city’s port authority and attacked the homes of government supporters, according to the local correspondent of Radio Quisqueya, located in Port-au-Prince.

The embattled city of Gonaives, Haiti’s fourth-largest town about 60 miles north of the capital, fell into the hands of the armed Artibonite Resistance Front on Thursday. Government officials called the attack “terrorist” and said it was linked to Haiti’s opposition movement, which has been calling for the resignation of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

The total death toll in Gonaives was difficult to calculate late Saturday, because shooting continued in one part of the city where three police officers were holed up in the hospital.

At least four and perhaps eight police officers were killed Saturday in shoot-outs, ambushes and lynchings by the front and its supporters.

Some radio reporters said eight officers were killed, but only four officers’ bodies were seen on the streets on Saturday. Witnesses said police recovered at least two bodies before they fled on Saturday afternoon.

Police could not be reached for comment on Saturday from Gonaives.

The front claimed it shot and killed 14 officers. Two of its members were injured, front leader Buteur Métayer said.

“I’m embarrassed how easy it was for us this time,” Métayer told the South Florida Sun-Sentinel in an interview in the seaside slum of Raboteau, the front’s stronghold. “We kept the roads open so they could come in, but then we surrounded them.”

Métayer said he regretted the police deaths.

“We don’t have any problems with police. Our problem is with Aristide,” Métayer said. “When he goes, we will turn in our arms.”

Several civilians also were killed on Saturday. The victims were passers-by on the outskirts of town, said witnesses, who claimed four were shot.

While it was impossible to confirm the number of dead, police fired indiscriminately from their convoy of about 10 vehicles as they fled only a few hours after they arrived Saturday morning. Witnesses reported that one woman in her 20s was killed as she ate at a food stand. Earlier in the day, a man was set ablaze for stealing a goat, according to witnesses.

“This is what we do to thieves,” one man said.

A woman ladling bean sauce onto plates of rice at her makeshift streetside food stand cheered as men carried police officers’ body parts by and shouted: “The people of Gonaives don’t mess around. We’ll eat alive anyone they send here to attack us.”

Gonaives was tense Saturday as rumors circulated about the arrival of Aristide-backed police. Haiti’s national army was disbanded under international supervision in the 1990s. Front members and hundreds of supporters set up rows of burning barricades on the national highway leading into and out of town.

A police convoy of about 15 vehicles with no license plates, carrying an estimated 60 to 80 heavily armed and helmeted officers, entered the city through back roads easily Saturday morning.

Haitian officials in the capital announced police had gained control of Gonaives by noon.

“Right now the police control the city and have ended the state of anarchy,” Secretary of State Mario Dupuy told reporters late Saturday morning in a statement relayed by Radio Metropole and other stations.

But only an hour later, police were under attack by the heavily armed rebels who fired from hideouts and windows. The convoy soon fled, leaving at least three vehicles, four police officers’ bodies and four officers trapped on the grounds of the city hospital.

One of those men was soon killed by a front member. His naked body was displayed at the entrance of the La Providence hospital, where a crowd of about 100 gathered and jeered. The brutalized bodies of two other officers were also displayed, and people took vengeance by mutilating the bodies.

One man said he did it because he had been forced to pay almost $500 to be released from jail earlier this year.

As the sun set Saturday, a crowd of several hundred paraded through the streets, while a police helicopter hovered helplessly high above the hospital nearby. At the end of the day, the police and the front members continued to trade gunfire but appeared to be at a standoff.

Meanwhile Saturday, in the capital, Port-au-Prince, throngs of government supporters marched to show support for Aristide on the third anniversary of his second inauguration. Because dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier fled Haiti on Feb. 7, 1986, the date has been called Haiti’s “second independence,” and presidents have been sworn in on that day.

In downtown Miami on Saturday, at least 100 Haitians rallied in support of Aristide’s ouster and the end of his government. Protesters waved flags and signs decrying Aristide and chanted “Aristide must go!”

Haiti’s government officials have condemned the violence.

Aristide alluded to the Gonaives situation in a speech broadcast on radio from Cite Soleil, Port-au-Prince’s large northern slum. “Yes to political opposition; no to terrorist opposition,” he said, calling on citizens to protect police.

Dany Fabien, cabinet director for State Secretary for Security Reginald Dubreiul, on Friday said: “What is happening today is the bourgeoisie rising up against the people. … This is the rich attacking the people and we will respond. … We will take whatever measures are necessary.”

The United States, United Nations and Organization of American States have all expressed concern about the rebellion in Gonaives and the growing violence.

Information from The Associated Press was used to supplement this report.