Anti-Aristide revolt spreads, looting begins
Embattled Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide faced his most serious challenge in months of anti-government protests on Sunday as an armed revolt spread to several more cities in the impoverished Caribbean nation.
Hundreds of frenzied looters stripped sea containers in the port of Saint Marc of televisions, radios and corn flour, and set the empty containers ablaze a day after outnumbered police were forced to flee armed gangs.
A maze of barricades were thrown up in the sprawling slums and streets of Saint Marc, the largest town on the road north from the capital to the country's fourth-largest city, Gonaives, where police tried unsuccessfully on Saturday to restore control after being driven out two days earlier.
Youth gangs, many of whose members carried handguns tucked under their T-shirts, controlled all travelers to and from Gonaives. Cars could not pass the barricades made of vehicle carcasses, felled trees, boulders and smoldering garbage.
In addition to the uprising in Saint Marc, police headquarters were attacked in the cities of Trou de Nord, Listere and Grand Goave, independent Radio Metropole said.
Aristide, a former Roman Catholic priest once hailed as a champion of the country's fledgling democracy but now accused by opponents of corruption and political thuggery, is under pressure to resign halfway through his second term as the poorest country in the Americas spirals into mayhem and bloodshed.
The revolt has come on top of months of sometimes violent anti-Aristide demonstrations in Port-au-Prince and other cities in Haiti, a country of 8 million people that has suffered repeated civil wars and dictatorships since independence 200 years ago, and two U.S. invasions.
Haitian Prime Minister Yvon Neptune on Sunday accused the opposition of fomenting a coup d'etat.
"It is not the government that is organizing the violence," he told local broadcast media.
POLICE STATION WRECKED
The main police station in Saint Marc was a rubble-strewn, smoking ruin on Sunday. The neighboring courthouse was also destroyed. Locals said two bystanders died when police tried to defend their outpost against attack on Saturday.
Official government documents lay in the dust under the pounding sun, and locals ripped whatever electrical cords remained from trashed police vehicles in the yard.
The city's pro-Aristide mayor fled town, as did other supporters of the ruling Lavalas Family party, residents said.
"We're just waiting for Aristide to go," said Louis Andrel, a youthful gang leader with a perpetual smile but also with apparent clout in a city that appeared to be run by rival, but for now united, armed bands.
"Step by step, town by town. When we have all the departments (districts), we'll go down to Port-au-Prince," Andrel told Reuters.
Ordinary residents looked on nervously, refusing to be identified to reporters. "People are scared. The ones who are out in the street aren't, because they're the ones with the guns," said one man.
Gonaives, a city of an estimated 200,000 people, was taken over by an armed group run by gang leader Buter Metayer in a bloody assault on police headquarters and other government buildings on Thursday and Friday. Seven people were killed.
The rebels, who once belonged to a pro-Aristide gang called the Cannibal Army, said another 14 officers died in a failed counterattack on Saturday. A police source said two had died, but journalists on Saturday counted at least four police corpses.
Micha Gaillard, spokesman for opposition group Democratic Convergence, said Aristide only had himself to blame for Gonaives as he had initially armed the Cannibal Army.
"Now the longer he stays in power the greater the risk of civil war, with all its consequences of boat people," he said.
Aristide has said he intends to serve out his second term to 2006. He still commands support in many areas, although opponents have accused him of relying on hired thugs.