Originally: US Secretary of State Colin Powell telephoned a Haitian opposition leader, Andre Apaid, after the weekend talks

February 24, 2004

Columns of balaclava-wearing rebels have overrun Haiti’s second-largest city, Cap-Haitien, driving police from their headquarters in an escalation of a bloody rebellion against President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

Heavy gunfire rattled across the city on Sunday as a rebel force of about 200 scattered poorly trained and outnumbered police before them and people ran for cover. Flights from the capital were suspended.

“I believe the city is under rebel control,” said Alejandro Chicheri, a spokesman for the World Food Program in Haiti.

Local hotel owner Nicolas Bussenius said people were looting the port for grain, prisoners had been freed from jail and sporadic gunfire was heard.

Armed supporters of Mr Aristide, who have attacked rebel sympathisers over the past two weeks in panic at rumours of impending attack, commandeered a plane at Cap-Haitien airport, radio stations said.

The Cap-Haitien attack was the rebels’ most significant victory in a nearly three-week armed uprising that has spread across much of the impoverished nation.

The rebel advance came a day after an international delegation led by US Assistant Secretary of State Roger Noriega, the top US diplomat for Latin America, left without an agreement from mainstream opposition leaders to join a peace plan designed to end Haiti’s political violence.

About 60 people, most of them poorly equipped police officers, have been killed this month in clashes between state and rebel forces.

Facing the gravest threat to his three-year-old Government, Mr Aristide, a former priest re-elected in 2000, agreed at the weekend to share power with a broad civic opposition movement that has been demanding his resignation for months. But the opposition coalition of business associations, university students and human rights groups reacted coolly to the agreement, which would keep Mr Aristide in power, and said it would make a pronouncement yesterday afternoon.

A US State Department spokesman condemned the attack on Cap-Haitien, saying the US considered change through violence unacceptable.

The spokesman said US Secretary of State Colin Powell telephoned a Haitian opposition leader, Andre Apaid, after the weekend talks ended and urged him to accept the agreement.

“We hope the democratic opposition will seize this opportunity to build an independent government with the support of the international community,” the spokesman said. He said Mr Aristide “will be held to his commitment”.

But the attack on Cap-Haitien emphasises how little practical effect the US-sponsored plan has had on the real opposition power – the rebel forces taking orders from former military leaders.

Over the past three weeks, rebel gains have marginalised the civic opposition and left the fate of the country’s 8 million people largely in the hands of a motley armed movement with little political ideology and the tactics of a street gang.

– Washington Post, Reuters