Fourteen police reported killed in Haiti ambushes
Haitian police trying to take back the poor country's fourth-largest city from an armed gang opposed to President Jean-Bertrand Aristide were gunned down in street ambushes on Saturday, and at least 14 were killed, according to radio reports.
A column of up to 150 police special forces rolled into the northern city of Gonaives alongside four-wheel-drive vehicles, but were met by burning barricades of masonry, tipped-over buses and tires, and volleys of gunfire from all sides.
The police column was allowed to move some way into the city before being ambushed from all sides by small bands of fighters. Gunfire rattled through the rubble-strewn, smoky streets of the ghostly empty city.
Independent Radio Metropole said at least 14 policemen were killed. A Reuters Television cameraman filmed one dead police officer and saw another fall after being hit by bullets. At least one civilian bystander was wounded, shot through both cheeks.
The failure to restore order marked a major challenge to Aristide, a former Roman Catholic priest once hailed internationally as a champion of the Caribbean nation's fragile democracy but who opponents now accuse of corruption and political thuggery.
Until last year, Gonaives, 105 miles from the capital Port-au-Prince, used to be seen as firmly in the pro-Aristide camp, terrorized by a pro-government militia called the Cannibal Army and headed by Amiot Metayer.
But Metayer's brother, Buter Metayer, who is leading the current revolt, turned his gunmen against Aristide after blaming the embattled president for Amiot Metayer's death last September in a gangland-style murder.
Buter Metayer began taking control of Gonaives on Thursday after his militia attacked a police station and burned it to the ground. Seven people, including three police officers, were killed and 22 wounded in the shootout.
Aristide addressed a huge crowd of passionate supporters in one the poorest slums of Port-au-Prince on Saturday and vowed that police would take back Gonaives from the "terrorists." Haiti no longer has an army.
But Gonaives, a city of about 200,000 people, was prepared.
M-16S AND GRENADE LAUNCHERS
Gunmen, aged from 15 years to around 30, took up position in side streets and on balconies, armed with weapons like M-16 rifles equipped with sniper sights and grenade launchers, according to the Reuters Television cameraman.
"We are children, we are not terrorists. We are doing this for the people of Haiti," one rebel who called himself T. Will told Reuters Television.
Forced to retreat, the remaining police holed up in a school, unable to escape from the city where Haiti declared its freedom in 1804 from slavery and French rule to become the world's first black republic.
Police in the small town of Saint Marc, around two-thirds of the way to Gonaives from Port-au-Prince, had either left their police station or been driven out under attack from a local armed group, according to radio reports that could not be independently confirmed.
The former Cannibal Army militia in Gonaives, now called the Artibonite Resistance Front or Front for Aristide's Departure, had pledged to move on to "liberate" other northern Haitian cities.
With dozens killed in recent months in clashes between Aristide supporters and his opponents, the president is under rising pressure to resign midway through his second term.
At the heart of the dispute lies flawed parliamentary elections in 2000, but the standoff has prevented a new vote from taking place. Blaming his foes for the violence, Aristide has vowed to stay on until his mandate ends in 2006.