By PAISLEY DODDS and IAN JAMES
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti – Jean-Bertrand Aristide declared from African exile Monday that he was still president of Haiti, while U.S. Marines investigated a shooting that left five people dead during a march celebrating the former leader’s ouster.
Sunday’s shooting had prompted the Marines to return fire in the first armed action of their weeklong mission to stabilize Haiti. Angry survivors accused the Marines and their French colleagues of not doing enough to prevent the attack in the central Champs de Mars plaza.
Among the dead was Spanish TV correspondent Ricardo Ortega. Dozens were injured, including photographer Michael Laughlin, of South Florida, who works for the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel.
In his first press conference in exile, Aristide insisted he was still president and called for “peaceful resistance” against what he called the “occupation” of his homeland.
“I am the democratically elected president and I remain so. I plead for the restoration of democracy” in Haiti, Aristide told reporters in Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic. “We appeal for a peaceful resistance.”
Aristide fled Haiti on Feb. 29 under pressure from a popular rebellion and officials from the United States and France. In other statements since arriving in Bangui, Aristide has accused the U.S. military of forcing him to step down — an allegation denied by Secretary of State Colin Powell (news – web sites) and other Bush administration.
Sunday’s bloodshed was the worst since Aristide’s ouster. What protesters called a “victory march” began with a few hundred people in the capital’s Petionville suburb, with Haitian police in the lead. Bringing up the rear were U.S. Marines in five Humvees mounted with machine guns and two truckloads of French legionnaires.
Pro-Aristide militants said they too would march, and a confrontation seemed inevitable.
“Try Aristide! Jail Aristide!” protesters yelled, demanding he stand trial for alleged corruption and killings committed by his supporters.
As the number of protesters swelled to thousands, the peacekeepers got hemmed in.
When marchers converged on the Champs de Mars plaza, gunfire erupted.
Several witnesses said they saw Aristide militants open fire from the roof of the Rex movie theater across the plaza as thousands gathered in front of the National Palace.
U.S. Marine Maj. Richard Crusan said it was unclear who the gunmen were. He told The Associated Press that three Marines on the grounds of the palace returned fire, shooting in the direction of the theater gunfire. No Marines were wounded.
The direct trajectory from the palace, where the Marines were, to the theater does not include the area where the dead and injured fell.
Doctors lacking supplies struggled to treat the injured despite the arrival of a French air force helicopter that landed on a major road to deliver emergency supplies to Port-au-Prince’s main private hospital.
Among more than 30 injured people was Laughlin, 37, who was shot in the face and shoulder but was in stable condition.
Many of the victims were shot with high-velocity bullets from weapons like M-16s and M-14s, orthopedic surgeon Ronald Georges said.
Victims complained that peacekeepers did nothing.
“The peacekeepers were nowhere near where the shooting was,” said Alma Coastal, 31, who was shot twice in the left shoulder.
French commander Col. Daniel Leplatois defended the peacekeepers, saying: “We’re not able to secure the lives of all of the demonstrators.”
Aristide supporters said they canceled their march because peacekeepers had not promised the same level of security they gave their opponents. A pro-Aristide rally was instead planned for Monday.
“The Americans are only here to protect those who helped oust Aristide,” said Ednar Ducoste, 23. “If we had guns, we would be fighting against them right now.”
Prime Minister Yvon Neptune defended the Marines, saying they abided by “rules of engagement (that) permit that they use proportional force.”
Wailing victims flooded the Canape Vert hospital where Georges works, and blood covered the floors of the two operating rooms.
Neptune — an Aristide appointee whom protesters also want tried — ordered police to search for perpetrators and “start disarming all who carry illegal weapons.”
Chief rebel leader Guy Philippe, who was hoisted on the shoulders of protesters Sunday and hailed as a hero, promised to disarm last week. But his fighters say they will surrender their arms only after Aristide’s militants do so.
Aristide was a wildly popular slum priest when he became Haiti’s first freely elected leader in 1990. But he lost support after he was re-elected in 2000. Haitians said he failed to improve their lives, condoned corruption and used police and armed supporters to attack his political opponents.
Associated Press writer Peter Prengaman contributed to this report from Port-au-Prince.