Originally: Belly down with assault rifles at the ready, rebels hunker down in the hotel lobby
CAP-HAITIEN, March 23 (AP) — Belly down with assault rifles at the ready, rebels hunker down in the hotel lobby, weapons trained on a parking lot where a shot rang out overnight. By day, a convicted assassin judges petty criminals and supporters of ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who say bodies are still turning up in the city’s bay. Guerrillas outnumber and outgun police in Haiti’s second-largest city, a strategic port where humanitarian agencies are relying on French troops and a shaky truce to do their work.
“There are some problems … but we’re trying to work out these misunderstandings,” said Renan Etienne, new police chief for northern Haiti. A gunshot rang out in front of the downtown rebel-held police station Monday night, then another crackled outside the hillside hotel rebels have frequented since seizing the city. Rebels fell to the lobby floor and nervous hotel staff fled to the kitchen for cover. Police and rebels were in emergency talks Tuesday. Neither admitted firing the shots but the tensions underscore the many challenges in the north where rebels hold sway.
During the rebellion, which erupted Feb. 5 and ended when Aristide fled the country Feb. 29, scores of police fled their posts. Fewer than half of Cap-Haitien’s 100-plus officers have returned, lacking vehicles, weapons, offices and the trust of residents who accuse them of acting as Aristide’s henchmen. Business owners — who have helped pay the rebels’ bills for food and lodging — now turn to the rebels when there’s a problem, not the police. Sitting cross-armed at a wooden desk beneath an almond tree at the police headquarters his fighters torched, Louis-Jodel Chamblain — a former army death squad leader and convicted assassin — has become de facto judge in Cap-Haitien.
Chamblain’s band of former soldiers and ragtag recruits have jailed dozens of people accused of everything from petty thievery to fighting for Aristide.
Chamblain said he decides on minor offenses but is holding suspects for serious crimes until courts reopen — a promise met with skepticism by rights groups.
“You know what the sentence is for a thief?” Chamblain jokes to a terrified 15-year-old accused of stealing an empty oil drum. “Being shot down.” However, it’s then agreed that the youth, Simon Herman, must return the drum or pay the owner $5.
Although a superficial sense of order has returned, no one is sure who is in charge, especially since some 150 French troops began arriving last week.
The French were negotiating Tuesday with rebels controlling the port.
Looters emptied the World Food Program warehouse of 800 tons of food the day after the rebels took over, and there are fears that could happen again. Wednesday’s scheduled shipment of 1,550 tons of food will be the largest to the north since the crisis began, World Food Program spokesman Alejandro Chicheri said. “I still don’t know who’s who or who is supposed to do what,” Etienne, the police chief, said. For years, Haiti’s government leaders sat on the national police council, blurring the lines of political affiliation and impartial justice. Newly returned police officers declare their neutrality but remain at the mercy of rebels who are pressing for the interim government in Port-au-Prince to reinstate the army. Aristide was ousted by the army in 1991, and he disbanded it after being returned to office.
“The day that the police get up and running, the Resistance Front will give up its guns,” promises Chamblain, a pistol stuck in his dress slacks.
Chamblain denies he is playing judge, saying he only mediates disputes.
But New York-based Human Rights Watch maintains the rebels illegally detained at least 16 prisoners on Saturday. The group urged French troops to quickly fill the “security vacuum.”
“The multinational forces need to extend their reach,” Joanne Mariner, Human Rights Watch director, said. “Right now there really is no rule of law.”
“None of the groups are doing what they should to provide security,” said Kenson Severe, 28, who was jailed after being accused of possessing illegal weapons. “People can hate someone just because that person has something valuable, and then they tell the rebels to arrest you.”
Severe was turned in by neighbor Jonel Gracia, who now shares his cell. Gracia complained he was wrongly accused of being among Aristide militants who terrorized residents before the rebels arrived.
Most Aristide officials are in hiding. Those who ventured out this week accused rebels of killing detractors — charges Chamblain denies.
“The fishermen come in and say all they’ve seen are bodies,” said resident Job Denis.
French military spokesman Xavier Pons said corpses have been seen in the bay. Dozens of bullet-riddled bodies have been brought to the morgue in the last month, officials said.