Human rights group: Latortue in ‘unholy alliance’ with insurgents

CAP HAITIEN, Haiti (AP) — Police and former rebels held emergency talks Tuesday after clashes erupted between the two groups, less than 48 hours after police returned to this sprawling city that rebels claimed during a rebellion to oust President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

The choppy transition was illustrated late Monday night when a shot rang out in front of a charred police station manned by rebels, and another outside a hillside hotel that the former rebels have used as a meeting place since taking the city on February 22.

Neither side admitted to firing the shots but the clashes underscore the challenges in the north where rebels have stepped in as law enforcers to fill a void. During the rebellion, many police and government workers fled their posts fearing reprisal attacks.

“There are some problems between factions of the police and rebels right now but we’re trying to work out these misunderstandings,” said Renan Etienne, the city’s new police chief and director of police in the country’s northern departments.

More than 30 police officers have returned to the city — Haiti’s second largest with more than 500,000 people — but the former rebels still outnumber and outgun the police.

Human rights groups have criticized the former rebels for targeting former supporters of Aristide or his Lavalas Family party. On Tuesday, the ex-commandos were holding five prisoners and had just released nearly a dozen accused of crimes ranging from theft to illegal weapons. Two were being held on allegations they were armed Aristide loyalists.

As rights groups questioned interim Prime Minister Gerard Latortue’s actions at a weekend rally where he celebrated the gangsters who began Haiti’s uprising as “freedom fighters,” Lavalas officials appeared to be regrouping and warned there could be no peace without the participation of Haiti’s largest political movement.

“Everywhere Lavalas is a victim,” said Sen. Yvon Feuille, a Lavalas member. “Besides those physical massacres, we see there is a political massacre being prepared behind Lavalas’ back,” he said. “Without Lavalas, there is no solution.”

Aristide left February 29, claiming he was forced from power by the United States as rebels threatened to attack Port-au-Prince. Some 3,300 troops from the United States, France, Chile and Canada are in Haiti as peacekeepers. More than 150 French troops are patrolling the north, sometimes passing armed commandos and the newly arrived police.

Under a U.S.-sponsored plan, Latortue last week formed a transitional government that he said is neutral but includes no Lavalas member and is loaded with Cabinet members critical of Aristide.

Aristide is staying temporarily in Jamaica, but Nigeria announced Monday it has agreed to a request by Caribbean leaders to grant him temporary asylum. A Nigerian government statement did not say whether Aristide had requested — or even agreed to — asylum in the country.

Latortue, the United States and others have criticized Jamaica for accepting Aristide, saying his presence near Haiti would raise tensions.

Human rights groups criticize new leader New York-based Human Rights Watch warned Monday that fighters in the rebel-held north were illegally detaining former Aristide officials and journalists who supported him.

It urged French troops to quickly fill a “security vacuum” in northern Haiti.

“The multinational forces need to extend their reach,” said Joanne Mariner, Human Rights Watch director, said on her return from the north. “Right now there really is no rule of law in much of northern Haiti.”

The New York-based National Coalition for Haitian Rights, meanwhile, accused Latortue of “fanning the flames of lawlessness” when he shared a platform with rebel leaders at a rally in his hometown of Gonaives on Saturday.

Coalition director Jocelyn McCalla criticized Latortue for standing shoulder-to-shoulder with “thugs” including rebel commander Jean Pierre Baptiste, also known as Jean Tatoune, who escaped from jail after being sentenced to two life sentences for involvement in the 1994 massacre of some 15 Aristide supporters.

“We strongly condemn the unholy alliance which the interim government has struck with the Gonaives rebels,” he said, noting one rebel leader “threatened to overthrow the interim government should they decide that things were not to their liking.”

Amnesty International’s Americas director Eric Olson said, “It sends a very bad signal for the prime minister … The future of Haiti depends on a strong justice system, and sweeping these things under the carpet weakens that future.”

Cabinet Minister Robert Ulysse rejected the criticism, saying Latortue was trying to “reckon with everything in the past” and discuss the “repressive nature” of Aristide’s government.