Originally: Haitians flee unrest in port city

Haitians flee unrest in port city
Violence spreads to about 10 towns

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By Gary Marx
Tribune foreign correspondent
Published February 10, 2004

ST. MARC, Haiti — A stream of frightened refugees flowed out of this port city Monday as armed supporters and opponents of embattled Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide exchanged sporadic gunfire in unrest that has spread to at least 10 towns and cities in this impoverished Caribbean nation.

With the main highway into St. Marc blocked by huge boulders, smoldering tires and gutted automobiles, many residents fled on foot carrying suitcases or balancing huge sacks of belongings on their heads.

At least 42 people have been killed on the island since Aristide foes began their assault Thursday.

Refugees said they cowered in their homes for days to escape the shooting, which continued Monday as Haitian police and armed Aristide supporters reclaimed St. Marc.

“There was a lot of shooting,” said one woman who fled with her seven children. “It’s a complete state of lawlessness.”

The unrest stems from disputed legislative elections in 2000. Aristide’s party swept the vote, widely viewed as flawed. The president’s popularity appears to have fallen in recent years as the economy has faltered.

Aristide, a former priest, first came to power after defying the Duvalier dictatorship that was ousted in 1986. Haiti’s first freely elected president was unseated in a 1990 military coup, went into exile in the United States and returned to Haiti after 20,000 U.S. troops invaded the island in 1994 and toppled the military government.

As refugees fled St. Marc on Monday, two men assisted an ailing woman who had to leave a hospital that had been abandoned.

Others swept past about two dozen civilian Aristide supporters toting hand-grenades, shotguns and machetes at a roadblock. By midafternoon, the men said their armed opponents had strategically retreated and that they were preparing for a counterattack at any moment.

“We are ready to die for our president,” said Maitre Olvy Emilecar as he held a grenade.

Prime Minister Yvon Neptune inspected the charred remains of the St. Marc police station Monday, after warning a day earlier that the growing violence in Haiti was “tied to a coup d’etat.”

The escalating violence in St. Marc, about 50 miles northwest of the capital, Port-au-Prince, is only one indication of the deepening political crisis in this island nation that has been beset by military uprisings and endemic poverty almost since its founding 200 years ago.

Experts say that with no army and only a 5,000-member police force the Haitian government is ill-equipped to handle the growing revolt, which surged last week in northern Gonaives, Haiti’s fourth-largest city, and has spread to towns in western and northern Haiti.

`Spinning out of control’

The newest uprising reflects the growing dissatisfaction with Aristide, who has failed to deliver on promises to improve living conditions in this nation of 8 million people.

“I do feel that this is on the way to spinning out of control,” said James Morrell, a former Aristide adviser and now critic who heads the Haiti Democracy Project, a Washington-based think tank.

An opposition composed of a disparate group of businessmen, students and others has refused to participate in any new vote unless Aristide resigns. Aristide has refused to step down and insists that he will serve out his term, which ends in 2006.

“What we want is for Aristide to go,” said Carlo Racine, a fisherman in St. Marc. “He hasn’t given us anything. He campaigned on the slogan, `Peace in the head and peace in the belly.’ There is nothing so far.”

Aristide has denied arming his supporters and many observers believe that he remains Haiti’s most popular politician, especially among the poor. Last week, tens of thousands of supporters turned out to celebrate the third anniversary of Aristide’s second inauguration.

Some Aristide supporters are calling for an international force to enter Haiti to restore order and allow the president to finish his term.

“We don’t want to fight. We are here for peace,” explained Ernst Pascal, a member of Aristide’s Lavalas Party and a local official in St. Marc. “We want the president to finish out his mandate and then we are ready to have elections.”

The United States has condemned the violence and called on Aristide’s government to respect human rights. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said Haiti’s problems will be solved through dialogue, negotiation and compromise.

Secretary General Kofi Annan said the United Nations “will be stepping up our own involvement fairly soon” but did not elaborate.

At least 69 people have been killed in Haiti since mid-September in clashes between police, government opponents and Aristide supporters.

Since last week the Haitian police have abandoned about a dozen towns, reportedly leaving residents in the hands of armed Aristide opponents.

Reinforcements arrive

The most serious confrontation occurred last Thursday in Gonaives, a city of 200,000 people, when members of the Gonaives Resistance Front drove the police from the city and repelled a weekend counterattack by police. At least 11 police and seven civilians were killed in the fighting.

The rebellion in St. Marc began Saturday when armed Aristide opponents stormed the police station and burned it. .

Police reinforcements arrived in St. Marc by land and helicopter on Monday, searching for anti-Aristide gunmen. Most stores were shuttered and the streets were largely empty of civilians.

One top Haitian police official said Monday that the government forces now controlled St. Marc. But some residents said they feared further bloodshed.

“The people are really scared,” said jobless Duquens Destie, 31, as he fled the city.