Violence Sweeps Haiti

People carry away objects after looting shipping containers in the port of St. Marc, 55 miles north of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Feb. 8, 2004. Hundreds of people looted shipping containers, carrying away television sets and sacks of flour a day after armed government opponents drove police out of this western town in a widening uprising against President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. AP

A popular uprising in Haiti spread on Monday with anti-government rebels taking control of at least eight towns in western Haiti.

At least 46 people have been killed since armed opponents of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide began their assault Thursday, setting police stations on fire and driving officers from the northwestern city of Gonaives and several smaller nearby towns.

"We are in a situation of armed popular insurrection," said opposition politician and former coup leader, former army Col. Himler Rebu.

Hundreds of Haitians looted TV sets, mattresses and sacks of flour from shipping containers Sunday in St. Marc, one of several communities seized by rebels in a bloody uprising against Aristide.

Using felled trees, flaming tires and car chassis, residents blocked streets throughout St. Marc on Sunday, one day after militants drove out police in gunbattles that killed two people. Many residents have formed neighborhood groups to back insurgents in their push to expel the president.

Anger has been brewing in Haiti since Aristide's party won flawed legislative elections in 2000. The opposition and foreign governments, including the United States, accused the party of changing the way votes were tabulated to allow a handful of their candidate into the national legislature.

The opposition refuses to join in any new vote unless the president resigns; he insists on serving out his term, ending in 2006.

The situation has worsened since the United States blocked aid to impoverished Haiti from multinational organizations. At least $145 million has been delayed.

Clashes between government opponents, police and Aristide supporters have killed at least 97 people since mid-September.

In a recent statement, the U.S. Embassy in Haiti blamed violence not on Aristide's opponents, but on allies of the president.

On Jan. 30, the Embassy announced the departure of nonessential staff and dependents.

"Haiti's security environment has been deteriorating as President Aristide has continued to politicize the Haitian National Police and used government resources to pay for violent gangs to attack opposition demonstrators," the Embassy said.

The statement warned Americans to "defer travel to Haiti," and said the unrest had closed U.S. diplomatic offices several times.

In the bloodiest fights of recent days, 150 police tried to retake control of Gonaives on Saturday but left hours later after a series of gunbattles, witnesses said. At least nine people were killed, seven of them police, in gunbattles with rebels hiding on side streets and crouched in doorways.

Crowds mutilated and beat the corpses of three police officers. One body was dragged through the street as a man swung at it with a machete, and a woman cut off the officer's ear. Another policeman was lynched and stripped to his shorts, and residents dropped large rocks on his body.

Haitian radio stations reported claims by other rebels that as many as 14 police were killed in Gonaives on Saturday, but that couldn't be confirmed.

Meanwhile, before dawn Sunday an unidentified group of arsonists torched a two-story building in northern Cap-Haitien housing the studio of Radio Vision 2000, destroying it, the independent Haitian broadcaster said.

Rebels continued to rule the streets of Gonaives on Sunday, witnesses said, though it was unclear how many armed militants were the city of 200,000.

Calling the violence acts of terrorism, the government has vowed to regain control of the area, but it was unclear when police planned to return.

Police have deserted at least six other nearby towns, including Ennery, Gros Morne, L'Estere, Anse Rouge, Petite Riviere de l'Artibonite and Trou du Nord, according to the Haitian Press Network, a local news service.

Attackers set fire to the police stations of Gonaives, St. Marc and Trou du Nord. In St. Marc, the courthouse also was gutted by flames.

One 22-year-old bystander in St. Marc, David Saint-Louis, was wounded by a gunshot in the chest Sunday and said it was a police officer — in civilian clothing but wearing a badge — who fired at him near a barricade.

A number of people in both Gonaives and St. Marc said they formed neighborhood committees to aid the militants and keep watch over their areas.

The recent violence started Thursday when members of the Gonaives Resistance Front, took control of the Gonaives police station during a five-hour gunbattle. They set fire to buildings — including the mayor's house — and freed more than 100 prisoners from the city jail. Those clashes left at least seven dead and 20 injured.

The Gonaives Resistance Front used to be allied with Aristide. But it turned against him last year and changed its name from the "Cannibal Army," accusing the government of killing its leader Amiot Metayer to keep him from releasing damaging information about Aristide. The government denies it.

Some gunmen in Gonaives wore the camouflage pants and helmets of Haiti's disbanded army. The army ousted Aristide in 1991 during his first term. He was restored in a 1994 U.S. invasion and then disbanded the army, replacing it with a new civilian police force.
  • Bootie Cosgrove-Mather

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