2004Edition>News Center>World

Rebel group seizes control in Haitian city
Updated: 2004-02-06 09:38

An armed opposition group seized control of Haiti’s fourth-largest city Thursday, burning a police station, freeing prisoners and leaving at least four people reported dead and 20 wounded in clashes with police.

Members of the Gonaives Resistance Front began the assault shortly after noon in Gonaives, setting afire the mayor’s home and then dousing the police station with fuel and lighting it while officers fled, Haitian radio reports said.

At least four opponents of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide were killed in gunbattles with police, Gonaives Resistance Front leader Wynter Etienne told Radio Vision 2000. Radio Metropole reported 20 people were wounded and more than 100 inmates were freed from the jail.

“Gonaives is liberated,” Etienne told reporters in Gonaives. “Aristide has to go.... We’ve liberated the police station and freed the population” from Aristide’s rule.

Members of the armed group were once allied with Aristide but turned on him last year after their leader, Amiot Metayer, was found murdered Sept. 22. Metayer had long supported Aristide, but many of his followers now accuse the government of involvement in the killing.

Aristide has denied involvement, saying only the opposition stood to gain.

Etienne said the group aims to take control of other towns. Officials in Gonaives couldn’t immediately be reached for comment.

Members of the armed group set fire to both the home of Gonaives Mayor Stephan Moise and a gas station he owns, private Radio Kiskeya reported.

The group also set fire to a hotel where police often stay, according to one witness who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Roughly 200,000 people live in Gonaives and surrounding areas. The city — located 70 miles northwest of Port-au-Prince — has been the site of many protests led by Metayer’s supporters, who recently changed their name from the “Cannibal Army” to the Gonaives Resistance Front.

At least 51 people have been killed in the Caribbean country since mid-September in clashes between police, protesters and Aristide supporters.

Opposition leaders have demanded Aristide’s resignation, accusing his government of incompetence and corruption.

Aristide has refused to step down before his term ends in 2006 and has defended his government, saying it has made progress despite many obstacles.

Thursday’s clashes in Gonaives came a day after Bahamas Foreign Minister Fred Mitchell and Colin Granderson, assistant secretary general of the Caribbean Community, concluded talks with the opposition and met separately with Aristide.

Leaders of the opposition Democratic Platform said in a statement Thursday that during the two days of talks they sought to “explain why Aristide and his government have to go.” The opposition leaders said they would “never engage in any kind of negotiation to maintain Aristide in power.”

In the capital of Port-au-Prince, meanwhile, hundreds rallied in support of Aristide outside the National Palace Thursday, chanting: “Aristide five years! If they don’t like it, 10 years!”

They gathered after the funeral of Aristide supporter Lionel Victor, who was shot with a tear gas canister by police at close range during a clash with anti-government protesters on Jan. 28. Aristide has said an investigation is underway.

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