February 23, 2004

PORT AU PRINCE, Haiti — Rebels captured Haiti’s second-largest city with little resistance Sunday, claiming Cap-Haitien as their biggest prize in a two-week uprising that has driven government forces from half the country.

The fighters fired celebratory rounds as people looted and torched the police station and other buildings. A pall of black smoke hung over the city of 500,000.

Flush with victory after the takeover of Cap-Haitien, rebel leader Guy Philippe said he was setting his sights on the capital, Port-au-Prince.

“I think that in less than 15 days we will control all of Haiti,” Philippe said in an interview with two foreign reporters in a Cap-Haitien hotel room as he swigged from a bottle of Prestige beer.

As Philippe spoke, his fighters, clad in camouflage uniforms and black flak jackets, sat by the hotel pool in lounge chairs, drinking beer and eating dishes of goat, chicken, rice and beans.

Aristide, wildly popular when he became Haiti’s first freely elected leader in 1990, has lost support since flawed legislative elections in 2000 that led international donors to freeze millions of dollars in aid.

Opponents accuse him of breaking promises to help the poor, allowing corruption fueled by drug-trafficking and masterminding attacks on opponents by armed gangs — charges the president denies.

The rebels say they have no political agenda beyond ousting Aristide, but the man who started the rebellion, Gonaives gang leader Buteur Metayer, on Thursday declared himself the president of liberated Haiti. The rebels have made no effort to install any kind of control, beyond halting a near-riot as people rushed to get food aid in Gonaives on Thursday.

In taking Cap-Haitien on Sunday, rebels said their force of about 200 fighters only met resistance at the city’s airport, where Philippe said eight militant civilians loyal to President Jean-Bertrand Aristide were killed in a gunbattle.

In addition, four bodies were seen on the streets, for a known total death toll of 12 after the day’s fighting and mayhem in Cap-Haitien. At least one rebel was wounded.

Aristide supporters commandeered a plane from the airport, and witnesses said those who fled on it included seven police officers and former Aristide lawmaker Nawoum Marcellus, whose Radio Africa had been inciting violence against opponents.

“We came in today and we took Cap-Haitien; tomorrow we take Port-au-Prince” the capital, boasted Lucien Estime, a 19-year-old who joined the popular rebellion from the hamlet of Saint Raphael, south of Cap-Haitien.

“Our mission is to liberate Haiti,” he said.

The victory leaves more than half of Haiti beyond control of the central government. As that reality set in, panic began spreading Sunday in Port-au-Prince.

Sources close to the government told The Associated Press that several Cabinet ministers were asking friends for places to hide in case the capital is attacked.

On the highway leading into Port-au-Prince from the north, Aristide partisans set up flaming barricades Sunday to block any rebel advance.

In Cap-Haitien, thousands shouting “Aristide fini!” — Aristide is finished — marched along with about 40 rebels in commandeered cars.

“We’re free!” people shouted, ripping Aristide posters off walls.

Some looted Marcellus’ radio station. Then rebels shot up a building and set it ablaze, to applause from the crowd.

Reporters saw three bodies on the streets, and doctors said a 12-year-old-girl also was shot and killed. At least one rebel was wounded.

Earlier, about 10 armed men stormed the police station and freed about 250 prisoners. The police fled and the prisoners armed themselves, witness Ordil Jean said.

Haiti’s ill-equipped and demoralized police force of less than 4,000 has been the main target of the insurgents, who have torched a score of police stations since the rebellion erupted Feb. 5. At least 40 officers are among the 70 people killed since then. In the past week, officers have been deserting their posts with no rebels in sight.

In Cap-Haitien, police had barricaded themselves behind their walled compound, telling reporters they were frightened and had neither the manpower nor the firepower to repel a rebel attack.

As the police headquarters burned on Sunday, teenagers paraded in police hats and body armor. Rebels swigging from beer bottles handed over the keys of cars to residents. People hauled away weapons, typewriters, mattresses, even doors.

Thousands of people then converged on the port in a mad scene of looting. People pushed away cars for which they did not have keys and loaded goods onto hand carts. One man packed sacks of rice onto a looted La-Z-Boy reclining chair and trundled it down the street.

“We’re all hungry,” said Jean Luc, an 11-year-old who somehow had strapped four 110-pound sacks of rice to a child’s bicycle and was precariously trying to pedal it home.

Away from the euphoric scene around the rebels, people bolted their doors and fearfully peered out from balconies onto streets littered with bullet casings.

Rebel commander Jean-Baptiste Joseph, formerly head of an association of ex-soldiers, declared Haiti’s disbanded army had liberated Cap-Haitien.

“It’s the army that’s in charge here. It’s the army that will free Haiti.”

He confirmed the attackers were led by Philippe, a former police chief who has threatened for days to attack Cap-Haitien.

Also in town was Louis-Jodel Chamblain, co-leader of an army death squad that killed hundreds.

Philippe also was an officer in the army when it ousted Aristide in 1991 and instigated a reign of terror until the United States sent 20,000 troops in 1994 to end the military dictatorship and halt an exodus of boat people to Florida.

The United States, which blames Aristide for the crisis, has made clear it has no appetite for a new military adventure in Haiti.

Instead, diplomats on Saturday presented a U.S.-backed peace plan that was accepted by the beleaguered Aristide but resisted by the opposition coalition Democratic Platform, which says any plan must include Aristide’s resignation.

Sunday’s rebel victory increases pressure on the political opposition to agree to a peace plan. It has said it will respond formally by 5 p.m. Monday.

“This is their last chance. If they say no, they are saying no to the international community,” a senior Western diplomat said on condition of anonymity in Port-au-Prince, where diplomats were ratcheting up the pressure.

Still, that diplomat conceded there seemed only a “slim possibility” they would concede.

“We expect the international community to understand our position … which will not change,” said Gerard Pierre-Charles, a leading opposition leader once allied with Aristide.

Under the plan, Aristide would remain president with diminished powers, sharing with political rivals a government that would organize elections.
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