By Michael Christie and Ibon Villelabeitia
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (Reuters) – Gunfire broke out in Port-au-Prince on Thursday killing two people and injuring six others after police broke up a rowdy demonstration calling for the return of ousted Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.
The shooting erupted inside one of the capital’s slums as protesters scattered, some smashing shop and car windows, after police used tear gas to disperse a crowd of several thousand Aristide loyalists.
Morgue workers at the city’s General Hospital said two bullet-riddled bodies were brought in after the unrest near the National Palace, the latest volatility in the impoverished Caribbean country. The workers said they had been killed by police but this could not be independently confirmed.
Six people were treated in the emergency ward for bullet wounds. Two of them, a middle-aged man cradling a shattered arm, and a market woman hit twice in the upper torso, said they had been shot by police.
Aristide went into exile in Africa on Feb. 29, driven out by a month-long armed revolt and by U.S. pressure to quit. More than 200 people have been killed in the violence.
A champion of the poor who became Haiti’s first elected leader in 1991 after helping to end the decades-long rule of the Duvaliers, Aristide had faced growing accusations of corruption and despotism since flawed elections in 2000.
He has alleged from exile in the Central African Republic that the United States staged a coup and forced his resignation. Washington denied those claims.
But Aristide’s charges have inflamed the passions of his supporters.
In a development that could further stir discontent, Aristide was expected to visit Haiti’s Caribbean neighbor Jamaica soon, a Jamaican official said.
Rebels who helped force Aristide out promised again on Thursday to lay down their guns and U.S. Marines said a pledge by Washington to get tough on arms had been put into action.
‘DRY HOLES OKAY’
Haitian police and U.S. and French troops from the 2,500-strong multinational force searched a suspected weapons site early on Thursday in a show of military strength.
“The end result was we found no weapons,” said U.S. commander, Marine Col. Mark Gurganus.
“The bottom line is there’s going to be a lot of dry holes in these types of operations but that’s okay. The message out of this is that we’re looking and we’re out to help reduce the number of weapons on the street.”
French gendarmes and legionnaires secured a defensive perimeter around the Port-au-Prince neighborhood of Haut-Turtau, while Marines and police entered a house. A helicopter hovered overhead and passersby were shooed away.
There was no shooting. Marines have killed four people since Sunday as they faced escalating attacks and rooftop ambushes by suspected pro-Aristide gunmen.
In Thursday’s protest, which began in the Belair slum, police used warnings on megaphones then tear gas to break up the crowd.
People fled back toward Belair. Some broke windows and set fire to tires and garbage, while militants brought out their guns and fired at police.
The crowd emerged earlier from Belair singing and beating drums, blowing horns and chanting, “We want Aristide back,” and “No Aristide, no peace.”
While they marched, interim Prime Minister Gerard Latortue, who flew into Haiti on Wednesday from Florida, was meeting at the National Palace with President Boniface Alexandre to begin work on drawing up a Cabinet.
Latortue arrived promising to unite Haiti’s deeply divided 8 million people, attack insecurity, disarm the population and create jobs in a country where the vast majority scrape out a subsistence living from barren, eroded soil.
Rebel chief Guy Philippe told Reuters he had told his supporters to pursue peaceful methods to achieve their goals of inclusion in a new government, and re-establishment of an army, disbanded by Aristide a decade ago after it staged a coup.
Asked if that meant his forces would hand over weapons to the Marines, he said: “I’ve always said the president is our commander in chief. We do what he tells us.”
The rebels had already vowed to disarm after Aristide left. Their revolt was launched on Feb. 5 in the northwestern city of Gonaives and then rolled through the north after being joined by ex-soldiers and death squad leaders.
But when a celebratory anti-Aristide rally was attacked on Sunday, and six people died, Philippe withdrew the pledge. (Additional reporting by Joseph Guyler Delva in Port-au-Prince, and Horace Helps in Kingston)