PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (AP) — Rock-throwing militants of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide set flaming barricades and stoned people trying to protest Thursday, forcing organizers to cancel a mass march against Haiti’s leader.
The clash came a day after Aristide vowed to retain power and defy a bloody and popular uprising that has affected a dozen provincial towns and left 49 dead.
“We don’t want confrontation,” opposition coalition spokesman Mischa Gaillard said on independent Radio Metropole.
“The police have not done their duty to serve and protect,” he charged. “Since our strategy is a peaceful one … we have canceled the demonstration.”
Witnesses say the police retreated to a small station when about 100 Aristide supporters began lobbing rocks as protesters gathered at a rallying point at the top of a main road leading from Pétionville suburb to downtown Port-au-Prince.
Barricades of blazing tires blocked the protest route and created a monstrous traffic jam.
“I wanted to demonstrate against of the evil things Aristide is doing,” said 27-year-old university student Emmanuel Jean-Francois.
Critics at home and abroad, including the U.S. government, have accused Aristide of blocking similar demonstrations and, despite his public denunciations of violence, inciting police and his supporters to attack opponents.
About 100 Aristide militants gathered intimidatingly near rocks strewn at the proposed rallying point but claimed they were protecting the police station.
“The opposition came to take over the police station. We came to stop these terrorists,” said Bernabe Mervil, 33. “Aristide will finish his five years. The legal way is elections,” he said as others shouted agreement.
More than a dozen police stations have been torched in the provincial revolt that erupted a week ago Thursday. Stations are symbols of Aristide’s authority and police are accused of siding with Aristide militants and extorting money from innocent civilians.
The opposition coalition that called Thursday’s march has distanced itself from the bloody uprising, which is led by a former criminal gang and disgruntled ex-soldiers of the disbanded Haitian
But Aristide on Wednesday accused political opponents of driving the revolt, saying “They suffer from a small group of thugs … acting on behalf of the opposition.”
Speaking at his first news conference since the uprising erupted, Aristide insisted he would stay in power until his term ends Feb. 7, 2006. He did not address how he planned to put down the insurrection. His officials have said to prevent civilian casualties, any counterattacks must be part of a strategy that
could take time to plan.
The same rebels who started the revolt say they were armed by Aristide’s party to terrorize his opponents in Gonaives, Haiti’s fourth-largest city of 200,000 people which remains in rebel hands.
Winter Etienne, a leader of the Gonaives Resistance Front, said Wednesday they were taking their battle to other cities.
“We already have a force hiding in St. Marc, and we also have one hiding in Cap-Haitien. They are awaiting the orders to attack,” Etienne told The Associated Press.
But it appeared police backed by gunmen loyal to Aristide have reinforced their control in St. Marc, an important port city 60 kilometers (45 miles) west of the capital.
Indicating most rebels have fled the city, rebel leader Charles Nord Thompson told Radio Vision 2000 on Thursday morning that he could account for only 10 of some 100 members who seized St. Marc on Saturday.
On Wednesday, witnesses said, police entered the slum stronghold where rebels were holed up, shooting to provide cover for Aristide militants who then set ablaze five houses and fired at fleeing residents.
Reporters saw the charred remains of one of two people witnesses said burned to death, and the bodies of three people apparently shot in the back.
Rebels perpetrated similar reprisals in Gonaives, where dogs chewed Thursday on the charred remains of an alleged Aristide hit-man that rebels killed by “necklacing” — putting a tire over his head, dousing him with gasoline and setting him aflame.
It’s a form of assassination Aristide encouraged during the popular uprising that ended the 29-year Duvalier family dictatorship in 1989.
Haiti has suffered more than 30 coups in 200 years of independence, the last in 1991 when Aristide was ousted just months after his election as the Caribbean nation’s first freely elected leader. U.S. President Bill Clinton sent 20,000 U.S. troops in 1994 to end a military dictatorship, restore Aristide and halt an exodus
of Haitian boat people.
U.S. officials say they now are on alert against any new exodus set off by the uprising.
Aristide’s popularity has waned since his party swept flawed 2000 legislative elections. International donors have frozen millions of aid dollars and the president has been unable to keep his election promise of “peace of mind, peace in the belly.”
In Haiti’s second-largest city, the northern port of Cap-Haitien, Aristide militants manned fiery barricades to block any rebel incursion and fired shots through the night.
The house of a reporter for opposition Radio Maxima was burned, witnesses said. Radio Maxima was shut down Dec. 17 by police who smashed and shot up equipment.
February 12, 2004