PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Militant supporters of embattled President Jean-Bertrand Aristide took to the streets Thursday threatening opponents and erecting fiery barricades to prevent the first opposition march in the capital since an armed revolt last week.
Armed with bats, rocks and bottles, several hundred Aristide backers used tables, gutted cars and burning tires to block roads leading to the square where a rally was planned.
The proponents then converged on the plaza and chased and stoned one demonstrator and threatened another, forcing opposition leaders to hastily cancel the rally and reschedule it for Sunday. The attack took place in sight of a police station and some counterdemonstrators were arrested, according to a government statement.
“They threatened to kill me,” said Emmanuel Jean Francois, a 27-year-old student who reached the plaza. “Aristide must go. We are ashamed of him.”
Harold Jeffrard, an Aristide supporter, said he came to the square to defend the president against an opposition seeking to force a democratically elected leader from office.
“What they have in mind is to take power whatever way they can,” he said. “They are nothing but a bunch of bloodsuckers.”
Opposition leaders immediately denounced the Aristide militants, saying they were further proof the government was using violence and intimidation to quash a peaceful movement. They reiterated a call for Aristide to resign–something he has refused to do.
“I believe Jean-Bertrand Aristide has declared war on the Haitian people,” said Evans Paul, a one-time Aristide campaign manager who is now an opposition leader with the Democratic Convergence.
“It’s unacceptable,” he said at a news conference.
In a statement released Thursday, Aristide condemned “the acts of intimidation” and said his government is committed to guaranteeing the right to peaceful demonstration.
Thursday’s confrontation was the latest example of an escalating battle between Aristide and his opponents that began in 2000 with flawed legislative elections and intensified last week with the armed takeover of a dozen towns by rebels.
Since then, government forces along with militant supporters have retaken several of the towns but anti-Aristide forces still control Gonaives, the country’s fourth-largest city. They also have blocked the main north-south highway, preventing food and fuel from reaching many areas.
Experts said the political deadlock combined with the proliferation of armed militants on both sides could lead to civil war.
“The situation is extremely dangerous,” said Robert Fatton, a professor and Haiti expert at the University of Virginia. “You could very well have a descent into hell.”
Both sides not budging
Experts said Aristide, who restored to power in 1994 with U.S. military assistance, has contributed to the crisis by allegedly arming street gangs in recent years to solidify his control in the face of growing political opposition. One of those gangs turned on the president last week and took over Gonaives in a bloody confrontation.
But experts said the opposition shares blame for the standoff by refusing to negotiate with Aristide. Opposition leaders also have failed to categorically denounce the armed takeover of Gonaives and other towns, which has contributed to a sense that the conflict will be settled through force rather than bargaining.
Experts said the Bush administration has further fueled the crisis by failing to articulate a coherent position or act aggressively to end the dispute. U.S. officials have said they support a peaceful resolution through dialogue while also explaining that a solution may not include Aristide’s remaining in office.
U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell tried to end the confusion Thursday by saying the Bush administration was disappointed in Aristide but does not see “regime change” as the solution to the violence in Haiti.
Powell said he planned to discuss the crisis at a meeting Friday with Cesar Gaviria, secretary general of the Organization of American States, Bill Graham, foreign minister for Canada, as well as representatives from Caribbean countries trying to work out a peaceful solution with the help of the OAS.
Still, experts said it is unclear whether the U.S. will exert pressure on the opposition to negotiate an end to the crisis, pressure Aristide to resign or stand on the sidelines while the country is racked by violence.
“The U.S. needs to take a clear position one way or the other,” said Alex Dupuy, a Haiti expert at Wesleyan University.