February 18, 2004

MAISSADE, Haiti — Thousands of people in this remote mountain town cheered a band of anti-government guerrillas who swept through Haiti’s central region on Tuesday as police fled their posts in several cities and towns.

Heavily armed men, wearing military fatigues, bulletproof vests and riot gear, openly patrolled the cities of Hinche, Maissade and several small towns in the country’s Central Plateau, effectively cutting the country in half. But there were no signs of violence, and traffic and trade moved normally in many places. In some villages, residents ran out to greet the rebels as they drove through the dusty, heavily rutted roads of the central region.

It was the latest of several uprisings breaking out throughout Haiti, where a number of opposition groups and militant bands are demanding the removal of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

The rebels, who now appear to be linking up with remnants of Haiti’s defunct military and paramilitary groups, have taken control of several cities over the past two weeks. Upward of 50 people have died in the violence, and the government has appealed for international help in quelling the unrest.

“The government hasn’t done anything for the people of this country,” said John Delouis Belimaire, 40, a musician in Maissade. “Food prices are going up, agriculture is barely yielding anything, and there’s just no justice for the poor people who don’t have government connections.

“We were sick of it, very sick of it, and that’s why these soldiers are being welcomed into town,” Belimaire said. “People had been so afraid here for so long. Seeing these people make the police run away was great.”

The rebels stood atop their pickup trucks and waved to the crowd, who danced and sang for several hours Tuesday night.

“Whether Aristide likes it or not, he must go,” thousands of protesters who crowded the streets leading to the town square shouted. Others chanted: “Mothers, keep your babies safe; Aristide has not left yet.”

Leading the rebels in Maissade on Tuesday was Louis-Jodel Chamblain, a former soldier and leader of the Front for the Advancement and Progress of Haiti, or FRAPH, a paramilitary organization linked to the deaths of hundreds of Haitians under the military government that ran the country during a 1991 to 1994 coup. The appearance of Chamblin, who was recently seen in the city of Gonaïves after it fell to rebel hands following days of brutal fighting, suggested that insurgents in the Central Plateau are being directed by former military leaders. Other fighters among a group of several dozen patrolling the region said they were former members of the military, which was disbanded after Aristide was restored to power by a U.S. invasion in 1994.

“Thank God for Gonaïves,” said Samson Gilles, 76, who sat in his front yard watching the parading crowds. “Everybody was just so happy when these people showed up and the police left. We have to get rid of Aristide now, but I’m just happy his people are gone from here.

“No, I’m not bothered if they’re old FRAPH or the military. Anything has to be better than what we’ve been under in the last few years with Aristide,” Gilles said.

The guerrillas,some of whom said they were Haitians reared in the Dominican Republic, said in Spanish that they were under orders not to speak to reporters. But several said they were not interested in repressing the civilian population.

“We have no problem with anybody in the population, and we have no problem with anybody in the police,” said one soldier. “We have a problem with the criminals in the police department, and the chimère,” he added, referring to pro-Aristide militants.

“We are the army — a country must have an army,” said another soldier.

In Hinche, crowds gathered but did not cheer the rebels. Many saaid they supported Aristide’s ouster but were fearful of openly supporting the insurgents calling for his downfall, worried about retribution if government forces moved to retake the town.

On Monday just before noon, a band of about 50 fighters stormed the city’s central police station. About 30 police officers immediately surrendered and ran out shouting “Long Live Gonaïves,” but their superior tried to escape over a rear wall, witnesses said Tuesday.

When his bodyguard began firing on the rebels, they returned fire and killed both men, as well as a prisoner who was caught in the crossfire, witnesses said. The rebels then freed about 150 prisoners being held at the compound.

But on Tuesday there was no sign of any violence in the towns along Haiti’s National Highway 3, which runs up the center of the country. Instead, police stations and government offices were abandoned as armed guerrillas patrolled roads in pickup trucks.

A rebel commander, who identified himself as Sgt. Jean-Baptiste, a nom de guerre, was disappointed that Hinche residents didn’t greet him as enthusiastically as those in Maissade. On Tuesday afternoon, he visited the headquarters of the region’s major political opposition group, the Papaye Peasants Movement, and asked its leader, Chavannes Jean-Baptiste, for help in winning the residents over.

“Look, I’m from Hinche, and I know people are fearful,” the rebel leader told the opposition leader. “But we don’t want people to be afraid. They should be happy we’re here and happy to be rid of Aristide. We need your cooperation in convincing them.”

But Chavannes Jean-Baptiste, a former ally and now a bitter foe of Aristide, was having none of it. He canceled a demonstration scheduled for Tuesday so that his group would not be linked with the insurgents.

“Look, you have your movement, and we have ours,” Chavannes Jean-Baptiste said. “But we are a nonviolent movement. I do not support this violence. We’re trying to get rid of Aristide, but through legal, constitutional means.”

While the rebellion spread, Aristide said he had requested assistance from other nations to help quell the uprising. The Dominican Republic, which shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti, also urged the international community to come to Haiti’s rescue before the crisis damages other parts of the Caribbean region.

French officials said they were considering sending peacekeepers to help calm their former colony and to protect about 2,000 French residents there. .

The United States maintained its distance from the Haitian crisis but vowed to cooperate with other nations in the hemisphere to broker a peaceful resolution.

“There is, frankly, no enthusiasm right now for sending in military or police forces to put down the violence that we are seeing,” Secretary of State Colin Powell said in Washington.

The Bush administration has been critical of Aristide, but Powell rebuffed assertions that a solution depends upon Aristide’s removal.

“We cannot buy into the proposition that the elected president must be forced out of office by thugs and those who do not respect the law,” Powell said.

Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla., called upon the Bush administration to take a more active role to stabilize the situation.

“That should include collaborating with an international military or police force to restore order,” Graham said. “Given the likelihood of a massive outflow of refugees, the worsening situation in Haiti poses a threat to our national security.”

Speaking in West Palm Beach, U.S. Reps. Mark Foley and Clay Shaw, both Florida Republicans, called for a multinational peacekeeping force to stem the widespread unrest.

Staff Writers William E. Gibson and Tal Abbady contributed to this report, which was supplemented with information from wire services.
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