Originally: Militants hold Gonaives despite efforts of a heavily armed force. Rioting breaks out in town of St. Marc after officers flee.

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti ? Armed rebels seeking to oust President Jean-Bertrand Aristide spread their rampage to a second port city Sunday, while the mainstream opposition appeared to pull back from association with four days of violence that has killed 18 people, mostly policemen.

Attacks on government officials in Gonaives and St. Marc have ravaged the volatile, impoverished cities since Thursday, when gang members once loyal to Aristide seized the Gonaives police station, freed 100 prisoners and torched the mayor’s home.

Calling themselves the Gonaives Resistance Front, the militants previously known as the Cannibal Gang held on to the city of 200,000 despite an assault by 150 heavily armed police sent in Saturday by authorities trying to restore government control. Haitian radio broadcasts said 14 policemen were killed in the daylong clash before the government forces retreated.

Rioting broke out early Sunday in St. Marc, on the coast between Port-au-Prince and Gonaives. Rebels dragged tires, debris and logs across the main roads to seal off the city and set fire to the obstructions. Police fled overnight to escape the brutal attacks witnessed in Gonaives. News agencies in St. Marc reported that residents were supporting the uprising and that it was spreading to surrounding towns and villages.

During the failed attempt to retake Gonaives, Cannibal Gang members lynched one policeman and crowds attacked other uniformed corpses with machetes and rocks. A government media official in the capital circulated a picture of one policeman’s mutilated corpse via e-mail with the notation that “these are the atrocities the opposition are celebrating.”

Police have symbolized power in Haiti since 1995, when Aristide disbanded the army, which had conspired with remnants of the 30-year Duvalier dictatorship to oust him in a 1991 coup. Aristide, a former priest who was the country’s first popularly elected president after a tortured history of autocracies and coups, was restored to power in 1994 by a U.S. military intervention.

Widely applauded by Haiti’s impoverished masses when he returned from U.S. exile, Aristide and his Lavalas Party have since presided over a profound deterioration of the country. Haiti is by far the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, with more than half of the 8.5 million population suffering from malnutrition, as many as 80% unemployed, and the worst HIV/AIDS epidemic outside Africa.

Unrest has been deepening in Haiti since Aristide’s party swept parliamentary elections in 2000 that were deemed by international observers to be flawed. New elections were to have been held last year, but opposition forces refused to take part in an electoral preparation council to protest violence and intimidation of political rallies by armed street thugs.

Demands for Aristide’s resignation or departure have intensified since September, when the body of Cannibal Gang leader Amiot Metayer was found slain execution-style along a roadway outside Gonaives. Metayer had threatened to expose to international human rights investigators what he said was Aristide’s complicity in brutally dispersing opposition rallies, independent radio stations reported at the time of his slaying. Gang members have since attacked officials and symbols of government power.

At least 69 Haitians have died in political violence since September, and the confrontation between government and opposition groups marred the country’s New Year’s Day bicentennial observance of the overthrow of slavery and French colonization.

Aristide supporters and Lavalas Party members cast the gang reprisals in Gonaives as part of the political opposition alliance directed from Port-au-Prince that is also demanding that Aristide step down to allow formation of a government of national reconciliation. Leaders of the key opposition forces, the Group of 184 and Democratic Convergence, have condemned the Cannibal Gang as an Aristide creation. The government denies any such association.

Group of 184 and Democratic Convergence had planned a demonstration in the capital Sunday but called it off “out of respect for the dead policemen,” one member said.

The government official responsible for communications, Mario Dupuy, condemned the unrest as the work of “terrorists” and vowed to find and punish the perpetrators.