PORT-AU-PRINCE (AFP) – Gunmen opened fire on an opposition rally in Haiti, killing at least six people, including a journalist, and wounding 34 more as Haitians awaited the naming of a new government.
US and French forces helping police with security during Sunday’s demonstration moved onto the lawn of the presidential palace in Port-au-Prince.
“The Haitian National Police, as well as French forces and US marines, responded to gunshots by sending a quick reaction force,” said Staff Sergeant Timothy Edwards, a US military spokesman.
Gunshots were heard at the square and appeared to come from within the crowd, while gunmen opened fire on protesters and journalists a few hundred meters (yards) away. An angry crowd forced a group of police officers to fire back.
A journalist with Spanish channel Antena 3, Ricardo Ortega, died of gunshot wounds, while US journalist Michael Laughlin of the Fort Lauderdale, Florida, Sun-Sentinel newspaper was hit in the shoulder. Some 34 people were reported wounded.
Demonstrators promptly dispersed, many running from the square, after the shooting, which began as the rally was breaking up. They blamed the violence on supporters of ex-president Jean Bertrand Aristide and vented their anger on security forces for failing to prevent the violence.
Aristide left Haiti one week ago, following international pressure and an armed rebellion launched a month ago.
Shortly after the shootings, the Haitian capital’s industrial park was looted, according to witnesses and police. Looters emerged carrying sacks of rice said to have been donated by Taiwan.
Rebel leader Guy Philippe said he is ready to take up arms again following the violence.
Philippe told local Radio Vision 2000 he would be “obliged very soon to order the troops to take up the arms they laid down” under US pressure.
The insurgent went to talk with some of the wounded at the Canape Vert hospital, where angry Haitians yelled at US and French soldiers who guarded the entrance, asking to know why they had failed to intervene to prevent the violence.
“It is extremely urgent that the international force presses the police to reestablish security of life and goods,” said socialist opposition leader Micha Gaillard.
“The people were demonstrating peacefully having confidence in the Haitian police and in the international security force — unfortunately they did not act.
“A demonstration to celebrate the freeing of Haiti from despotism has ended in bloody catastrophe.”
More than 10,000 people had taken part in the march from the Petion-Ville neighborhood to the city center despite fears that militant Aristide supporters were planning a counter-demonstration.
Heavily armed US Marines and French gendarmes, using trucks and Humvees armed with machine guns, escorted the demonstrators, who demanded that Aristide face a criminal trial.
At one stage, protesters pulled down a huge billboard with a photograph of Aristide and later burned a portrait of the ex-president.
The demonstrators also condemned the violence and looting that followed Aristide’s departure and which have been blamed on militant supporters of the former president.
Philippe was among the protesters, sitting atop a sport-utility vehicle and waving to the cheering crowd. He had made a triumphant entrance to the capital Wednesday after his insurgents seized much of the country — seen as a key factor, alongside international pressure, in Aristide’s resignation and flight Monday to the Central African Republic.
Also among the demonstrators was political opposition leader Evans Paul.
Leonce Charles, named police chief following Aristide’s departure, had asked the multinational contingent deployed in Haiti in recent days to help prevent violence during the demonstration.
As the multinational force made its presence known in Haiti, the government Aristide left behind and the political opposition have moved closer to meeting the requirements of an internationally backed power-sharing proposal. A council of seven “wise men” formed Friday by government, opposition and international representatives said they would announce their choice for a new prime minister Tuesday.