Haitian Police Force Clashes With Rebels


GONAIVES, Haiti (AP) –

Police clashed Saturday with rebels who have occupied this city for two days, and the insurgents promised to keep fighting until Haiti‘s embattled president steps down.

Under a hail of rocks, the 150 police entered Gonaives in a slow push to the city center, where gunshots turned into furious street battles with the Gonaives Resistance Front. At least one police officer was shot dead in the crossfire, and a bystander was wounded by a bullet in his cheek.

The rebels captured Haiti‘s fourth-largest city on Thursday, one of the boldest threats in months to President Jean-Bertrand Aristide – struggling to keep control of a population impatient with years of poverty and turmoil.

“I’m not a terrorist. I am fighting for the Haitian people,” militant leader Wilfort Ferdinand, 27, said during a lull from a second-floor balcony overlooking the streets of Gonaives.

“I am ready to lay down my weapons as soon as Aristide leaves. Gonaives today is in the hands of the Resistance,” he said, holding an M-16 rifle fitted with a telescopic sight.

Militants hid on side streets and crouched in doorways, many armed with rifles and pistols.

“If the battle turns against us, retreat,” a militant commander called out to several other gunmen.

“Look, we’re going to get them. We’re going to draw them into a trap,” said the commander, who refused to give his name.

The Gonaives Resistance Front once was allied with Aristide. But the group turned against him last year, accusing his government of assassinating its leader.

Discontent has grown among Haiti‘s 8 million people since Aristide’s party won flawed legislative elections in 2000 and international donors froze hundreds of millions of dollars in aid.

Support for the rebels was tough to gauge, but several people in Gonaives backed them.

“We have placed our trust in the Gonaives Resistance Front. If the police counterattack, they’ll meet with stiff resistance,” said Jean Roland, a 23-year-old resident who wasn’t among the fighters.

Rebels took the city of 200,000 people Thursday after a five-hour gunbattle with police. At least seven people were killed and 20 wounded.

On Friday, thousands of protesters marched onto the main highway leading to Gonaives, chanting “Aristide must go! Too much blood has flowed!” Some rode in a looted police truck, flaunting stolen police uniforms and weapons.

At the jail, where the attackers freed more than 100 prisoners, looters dislodged metal gates and bars. Stores and schools remained shut and severed telephone lines were strewn in streets covered with rubble.

Government spokesman Mario Dupuy called the attacks “terrorist acts” and said police would restore order in the city 70 miles northwest of Port-au-Prince, the capital.