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Haiti rebels vow to lay down arms
Updated: 2004-03-04 08:48

Haiti's rebel leader said on Wednesday he was disarming his forces and retreating from the streets of Port-au-Prince, where gunfights erupted three days after the president was driven into exile.

Hours later, Haitian Prime Minister Yvon Neptune declared a state of emergency, allowing the government to suspend certain constitutional rights such as press freedoms and the right to demonstrate.

For the first time since President Jean-Bertrand Aristide fled into exile, U.S. forces rolled into the tumultuous streets of the capital in force, patrolling in Humvees equipped with machine guns and rocket launchers. They met no resistance and helped clear the streets of charred vehicle and other debris.

In Petit Goave, southwest of the capital, residents detained a militant Aristide supporter accused of murder, threw him to the ground and smashed heavy stones into his head. They then macheted him before burning him alive by putting flaming tires around his body.

The decision by rebel leader Guy Philippe, whose month-long revolt led to Aristide's downfall, came after a brief meeting with the top U.S. military official in Haiti. He was told the United States expected him to honor his word and disarm.

"We have decided to lay down our arms," said Philippe a day after announcing that he was chief of the military and police in defiance of the United States, which is heading a U.N.-authorized mission to restore order.

"The Front from now on has no men patrolling the streets," Philippe told reporters, referring to the rebel forces.

Over a thousand people marched by the U.S. Marine-guarded National Palace in support of Aristide, who was forced from office on Sunday by the armed revolt and by international pressure.

Philippe, a former police chief, said he had made the decision because international security forces were moving to disarm Aristide supporters. But the U.S. military commander in Haiti said the multinational force, which now numbers more than 1,700 American, French and Canadian troops, was not taking sides.

"I'm not interested in who's got the weapons," said Marine Col. Mark Gurganus. "What I'm interested in is everyone who has the weapons."


Washington, which is working with prominent Haitians to form a new administration, told the rebels on Tuesday to lay down their arms because they had no political role.

Philippe spoke after gunfights broke out on Wednesday between rebels and militant supporters of the ex-president. Old women with groceries balanced on their heads ran screaming as shots rang out at a crossroads near the La Saline slum.

Another gun battle erupted in a traffic jam in a nearby street market, where panicky drivers reversed at high speed to avoid cross-fire. Hundreds of people fled the streets around the U.S.-guarded National Palace.

Philippe had on Tuesday declared himself the "military chief" of Haiti's security forces, including the rebels and the Haitian National Police.

But Gurganus said after his face-to-face meeting with the rebel chief that he expected Philippe to disarm. "I was very happy with his responses. I think he'll be a man of honor and I think that he'll do what he says."

The rebels, who overran cities in the north of the country from Feb. 5 onward, started out as a street gang and were joined by ex-soldiers and paramilitaries.

Their leaders include men such as Louis Jodel Chamblain, the former leader of a death squad accused of thousands of killings. Human rights groups are alarmed that such people might achieve any power in Haiti.

Philippe said he did not have political ambitions and hoped the international community would create institutions to ensure that "no tyrants will come back to power."

From his exile in the Central African Republic, Aristide has claimed he was kidnapped by U.S. security forces. The U.S. government has denied the allegation.

Haiti's interim president, former Supreme Court chief justice Boniface Alexandre, addressed the nation for the first time on Wednesday, calling on Haitians to unite.

"I'm the president of all Haitians," he said in a radio speech. "I call on all Haitians to join together for peace."

With the power off and no preservative chemicals, decomposing bodies littered the floor of the Port-au-Prince morgue, where officials said they had received 30 corpses since Aristide left on Sunday. More than 100 people have died since the revolt erupted.

Celebrating their victory over Aristide, about 50 rebels, accompanied by prostitutes, drank heavily in a luxury hotel late on Tuesday, downing large quantities of beer. Philippe and his entourage ordered three bottles of $90-a-bottle champagne but left without paying for it, according to a hotel source.

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