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Haiti gunmen open fire on crowd; 6 dead
Updated: 2004-03-08 08:37

Suspected supporters of exiled Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide sprayed gunfire into a crowd of thousands of jubilant revelers outside the National Palace on Sunday, killing at least five people, including a Spanish journalist, and wounding 19.

Protesters are sprayed with water after a march by tens of thousands of people, escorted by U.S. and French soldiers, opposed to former Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide crowd into a square next to the Presidential palace in Port-au-Prince March 7, 2004. [Reuters]
Eyewitnesses said gunmen linked to Aristide's Lavalas movement fired from rooftops and burst into the capital's main square in a pickup truck, a jeep and on foot, shooting into a festive crowd celebrating the fall of the president.

"A whole group from Lavalas came down the Champs de Mars firing in every direction," said Ingrid Arnesen, a CNN producer who witnessed the attack. "Heavy machine gun fire."

Hospital officials said the dead included Spaniard Ricardo Ortega, a correspondent for the Antena 3 Spanish television station. A Reuters cameraman said at least four other journalists were wounded, including American Michael Laughlin of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. A spokesman for the paper said he was shot in face and shoulder.

U.S. Marines stand by the body of a man killed by unknown assailants after a demonstration by groups opposed to the former Haitian President in Port-au-Prince March 7, 2004.  [Reuters]
U.S. Marines in the impoverished Caribbean nation leading an international peace mission roared to the scene in machine gun-mounted Humvees as panicked demonstrators ran for cover and military helicopters hovered over the palace.

"It was a massacre," said Haitian National Police chief Leonce Charles, who was appointed to the job last week.

The bodies of two men were seen in the square and hospital officials initially said two people died in hospital. But one of the wounded, still unidentified, later died, taking the toll to five.

The shootings shattered a largely peaceful demonstration in which thousands took to the streets in a noisy parade to celebrate the fall of Aristide, who fled to Africa on Feb. 29 following a bloody revolt. More than 200 people have been killed in the month-long rebellion.


The march, closely watched by U.S. Marines, French troops and Haitian National Police in riot gear, came two days after thousands of angry supporters of Aristide burst out of slums and marched on the U.S. embassy to protest the "U.S. occupation" and demand his return.

In Sunday's march, revelers hoisted Guy Philippe, the leader of a ragtag band of rebels who helped oust Aristide, on their shoulders, shouting "Philippe, Philippe!" Another rebel commander, former death squad chief Louis Jodel Chamblain, signed autographs.

Witnesses said the gunfire erupted from street level and from the tops of buildings surrounding the square and many blamed Aristide's most militant and ruthless supporters, known as the "chimeres."

"I saw about a hundred chimeres a couple of blocks from the Champs de Mars," said Thierry David Henry, a university student attending the rally. "They were shooting down at the crowd from the buildings."

"I was driving in my car past the Champs de Mars when I saw two people shot dead and fell in front of my car," said witness Nadia Paul. "The shooting was coming from a drive-by car."

In the wake of the shootings, the body of a man in a blue shirt lay in the Champs de Mars in front of an unfinished monument started by Aristide to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Haiti's independence from France.


U.S. Marines rushed through the streets in tank-like Light Armored Vehicles and pointed rifles at rooftops. Wailing relatives and friends packed the Canape Vert hospital where most of the wounded were taken.

The shooting spree brought immediate pleas from Aristide's political opponents for international forces to disarm the chimeres.

The U.S., French, Chilean and Canadian forces in Haiti, which number about 2,300, had been on high alert on Sunday, expecting rival demonstrations. But until the shooting, Aristide's supporters had not materialized in the streets.

"Why are they there if they are not going to protect the people?" opposition leader Marie Denise Claude said. "The international community must disarm the thugs."

A U.S. military official said the Marines were not fired upon and did not fire any shots.

Aristide, a former Roman Catholic priest who became a champion of Haiti's impoverished masses when he helped overthrow the brutal Duvalier family dictatorship in 1986, was ousted by a bloody revolt that killed more than 200 people and by pressure from the United States and other foreign nations.

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

A council of elders named to help form a new government broke from a daylong meeting on Saturday without naming a prime minister, a task expected to be completed this week.

Among the top candidates are Smarck Michel, a businessman who served as prime minister in 1994 and 1995 but ultimately broke with Aristide over differences in economic policy, former Haitian army Gen. Herard Abraham, former Foreign Minister Gerard Latortue and Axan Abellard of the Center for Free Enterprise and Democracy.

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