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Mayhem erupts in Haiti as Aristide leaves
Updated: 2004-03-01 08:48

Hours after Haiti's President Jean-Bertrand Aristide left Haiti on Sunday, looters ransacked Port-au-Prince shops and police stations, prisons were opened and residents of the capital ran for cover as gunfire crackled.

It was difficult to know who was in control, if anyone. Plumes of smoke could be seen rising from the city center near the presidential palace.

The reaction of Aristide's backers was swift and angry. Armed bands of "chimeres," the most militant and ruthless of the ex-president's supporters from the slums, roamed the city in pickup trucks, armed with shotguns and machetes.

But there were also celebrations.

"We feel very happy. We are no longer afraid of anyone. We're waiting for the international force to come to Haiti," Rene, a graphic designer, said. He stood by with a dozen other Haitians on a main road to the capital.

"They must come quickly," another person chimed in.

Some in the crowd shouted "Vive Philippe!" referring to Guy Philippe, a rebel leader controlling half the country and whose three-week-old rebellion helped spark Aristide's departure.

Just after the shouting, a truck carrying armed "chimeres," named after fire-breathing monsters of Greek mythology, sped past. Through the vehicle's open door, a hooded man dressed in black swung a gun from side to side.

Haitian President Jean Bertrand Aristide speaks at what was his last formal press conference as President of his country, in this February 24, 2004 file photo. [Reuters]
A few hours later on the same road, two people were shot dead. One had a bullet in the head in what appeared to be an execution-style killing. Locals said the dead men, one slumped in a car, were chimeres.

Some self-proclaimed hooded rebels, armed with automatic rifles, went on a hunt for chimeres in two pickup trucks. They plastered a piece of paper in the front window saying "Liberation Front, Haitian Armed Forces."


Looters attacked dozens of buildings, including the house of an Aristide government official, where people took off with champagne bottles and gym equipment. At a police station in an upscale suburb, looters carted away police hats and helmets.

Two men hoisted a new refrigerator, still wrapped in plastic. One balanced a cooler on his head. Others took televisions, filing cabinets and even doors from the station.

Police later regained control of the outpost and by later Sunday some order appeared on the streets. Police arrested some looters and imposed a 6 p.m. curfew and by evening, many of the streets were quiet.

In central Port-au-Prince, near the presidential palace, large crowds gathered in the morning, throwing stones and shouting insults at journalists.

Others gathered at street corners, puzzled by the events, with their heads bent over radios. Cars sped by, swerving around an old refrigerator blockading the road.

U.S. security forces, armed to the teeth, stood guard as Haitian Chief Justice Boniface Alexandre was announced as the new interim president at the prime minister's mansion.

The U.S. guards shadowed every movement of Haiti's new leader as he held a hastily organized news conference. U.S. Ambassador James Foley stood by with the U.S. armed guards, giving more statements than the new leader.

Early on Sunday, police guarding Haiti's main prison in Port-au-Prince abandoned the jail, some changing from uniforms into street clothes to avoid detection. The jail emptied some 2,000 inmates into the streets, including murderers and other hard-core criminals.

As the city grew quieter by the evening, reality sunk in.

"Lots of money has been lost today, wealth Haiti can ill afford to lose," said George Sassine, an anti-Aristide businessman whose grocery store had been ransacked.

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