Police search for conspirators in Haiti; opposition claims coup attempt was staged

Wednesday, December 19th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (AP) _ Police hunted Wednesday for the leaders of an assault on Haiti's National Palace and some opposition leaders charged that the failed coup was staged by the government as a pretext to crush dissent.

President Jean-Bertrand Aristide called Monday's assault by armed men a failed coup and said police were searching for dozens of conspirators. Palace spokesman Jacques Maurice said the attackers wore the khaki and camouflage fatigues worn by the army that Aristide disbanded in 1995.

After the attack, hundreds of Aristide's supporters armed with machetes and revolvers burned opposition offices and homes across the country. At least seven died in the palace attack and ensuing violence.

Haiti largely returned to normal Wednesday, with vendors' stalls open along crowded streets and people roaming the capital in search of odd jobs. Schools, banks and the international airport had reopened Tuesday.

Officials in the neighboring Dominican Republic said Wednesday that the border with Haiti had reopened after being closed after the palace attack.

``The so-called coup d'etat was a masquerade,'' opposition leader Evans Paul said. Party headquarters of the former mayor of Port-au-Prince were destroyed Monday _ for the third time in 10 years _ by Aristide supporters.

Aristide was not in the palace at the time of the assault, when 33 heavily armed men killed two police officers and took over one wing of the building for seven hours before they fled. Two passers-by were shot by fleeing attackers, authorities said.

Paul said the idea of 33 men attacking a palace guarded by hundreds of police officers ``absurd.'' He also said it is widely known that Aristide rarely spends the night there.

Authorities said one of the attackers was killed in a gunbattle at the palace in central Port-au-Prince and a wounded gunman was captured at a roadblock near the border with the Dominican Republic. Police said the rest escaped.

Aristide said police had made ``a strategic retreat'' to allow the attackers to get away so they could ``snare them in a fish net.''

Aristide became Haiti's first freely elected president in 1990 but was ousted by the army in 1991 after eight months in office _ despite street protests by thousands of people.

Aristide loyalists, who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity, acknowledged that demonstrations Monday in response to the violence at the National Palace weren't spontaneous. They said pro-Aristide organizers told them Sunday night, hours before the attack, that something was happening and that they should mobilize.

Apparently seeking revenge for the palace attack, pro-Aristide mobs killed at least two people Monday.

Reporters Without Borders, a press freedom group based in Paris, said at least a dozen journalists were assaulted or threatened by Aristide supporters in front of the palace the day of the attack.

``The systematic nature of the attacks (on journalists) demonstrates that the protesters were acting on instructions to attack the press,'' the group said in a statement.

The United States appealed Tuesday to the Haitian government and opposition parties to reach agreement in their long-running conflict over election issues.

Haiti has experienced eight major revolts and thwarted or successful coups since 1986, when the Duvalier family was ousted in a popular uprising after a 29-year dictatorship.

After the 1991 coup, Aristide spent three years in exile before former President Clinton sent 20,000 troops to restore him to power. In 1996, Aristide stepped down because of term limits and was replaced by his protege, Rene Preval.

In November 2000, Aristide was re-elected following disputed legislative elections that led the international community to freeze most aid. He took office last February.