Originally: Key Haitian City Falls to Rebels
Cap-Haitien, Haiti — Rebels seized control of Cap-Haitien, Haiti’s second-largest city, on Sunday, meeting little resistance as hundreds of residents cheered, burned the police station, plundered food from port warehouses and looted the airport, which was quickly closed. Police and armed supporters of President Jean- Bertrand Aristide fled.
The rebel advance expanded the territory held by a ragtag army of insurgents to include virtually all the northern region of the country and drove the nation deeper into chaos. The insurgent leaders vowed their compatriots would occupy the entire country within two weeks.
While it was difficult to gauge the extent and momentum of the rebellion — the insurgents have refused to specify the exact size of their force — the seizure of Cap-Haitien was a major blow to Aristide. It throws into question whether a U.S.-backed peace plan to create a power-sharing government could save the country from further mayhem.
“We came here to free the people; we will free all the people,” Guy Philippe, the 36-year-old commander of the rebel army, said Sunday evening. He said about 11 people were killed in taking the city, a figure still impossible to confirm.
“We are ready to die for Haiti,” he said. “This is our advantage. No one wants to die for Aristide.”
There was no immediate reaction from Aristide, who dissolved Haiti’s army a decade ago and has no significant military force to rally against the rebellion.
Paulda Petime, a 23-year-old rebel dressed in camouflage, a bulletproof vest and a steel helmet, said he had helped lead about 200 rebels arriving in Cap-Haitien from Gonaives, the city where the uprising began Feb. 5. He was even more upbeat than his commander, Philippe, predicting the rebels would take the capital, Port-au-Prince, today.
As machine gun fire sounded in the streets of Cap-Haitien, which has a population of about 500,000, residents greeted the arriving rebels with chants of “down with Aristide” and “long live the army.” The rebels drove straight into the grassy square next to the city’s police headquarters, the chief symbol of central government power, at about 10 a.m., and declared the city liberated.
Residents of the city, on edge for weeks as rumors swirled that the rebels who control Gonaives would march here and take control, poured into the streets and set fire to the police headquarters’ two cinderblock buildings.
“Aristide is a dictator,” said Jean Robert, a 42-year-old unemployed boat captain, as the police station crackled and glowed orange behind him. “He was in hell, and the devil put him out because he was so wicked.”
The capture of Cap-Haitien was the biggest blow yet to Aristide as he contends with a nearly three-week-long uprising that has left more than 60 people dead.
Political strife has gripped Haiti since 2000, when flawed legislative elections led opposition groups to boycott the presidential election later that year. The political turmoil increased as a range of Aristide opponents, from peaceful dissidents to those with more militant aims, held rallies and marches this fall, demanding that Aristide step down. The protests boiled over into violence when a gang once loyal to Aristide in Gonaives revolted.
Bolstered by notorious figures from the country’s violent past, the rebels claim to have steadily gained strength, although their exact numbers remain unclear.
Jean-Baptiste Joseph, a rebel soldier who said he had been in the army before Aristide dissolved it in 1994, said the rebels would maintain order in Cap-Haitien and not allow vengeance killings.
“We are going to accompany the population so the chimeres cannot kill anyone,” Joseph said, referring to the armed gangs loyal to the president. “We don’t want any dechoukage,” he added, using the Creole term for “uprooting,” or politically motivated mob violence.
But a few hours after the rebels arrived, Cap-Haitien descended into chaos. At least four people were killed — a 12-year-old girl and three men believed to be supporters of the president’s party, Lavalas.
Hundreds of people streamed to the city’s port, throwing sacks of stolen rice onto any conveyance they could find — wheelbarrows, bicycles and baby carriages.
Residents also stormed the police station, taking anything that was not nailed down: beds, televisions, radio sets, battered file cabinets.
Rolex Pierre, 22, took a riot shield and helmet.
“Every year I want to remember what happened here,” Pierre said, holding his mementoes aloft.
Richard Estimable, the head of a pro-Lavalas militant group, fled the city with other top Aristide supporters by hijacking a small plane from the airport, said Jacques Jeannot, manager of Tropical Airways in Cap-Haitien.
Later in the day, another rebel leader, Louis-Jodel Chamblain, a former top military official who headed death squads in the late 1980s and was accused of atrocities in the aftermath of the coup in 1991 that removed Aristide from office, patrolled the streets with about 40 men carrying assault rifles. As he marched down the street in gold-rimmed sunglasses and a chain of bullets studding his chest, he refused to answer questions from reporters.
In a statement later at a local hotel, he said, “All I can say is I am proud to have liberated Cap-Haitien. The plan now is we are going to march to Port-au-Prince to the National Palace to expel Aristide.”