Haitian police recapture National Palace after coup attempt; six killed in violence

Monday, December 17th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (AP) _ Commandos seized Haiti's National Palace in a coup attempt Monday, killing four people before police retook the building. Government supporters armed with machetes and sticks struck back by burning the homes and offices of opposition leaders.

President Jean-Bertrand Aristide and his wife were unharmed in their home in Tabarre, about three miles from the palace, said National Palace spokesman Jacques Maurice. But more than 14 hours after the attack, Aristide had not appeared on television or radio. Government officials said he would issue a statement later in the day.

At least seven people died in Monday's violence, which prompted the U.S. Embassy to close its doors and urge Americans in Haiti to stay at home. Airlines canceled flights to the impoverished Caribbean nation.

Aristide was first elected president in 1990 and stayed in power only eight months before the army ousted him in a coup that began Sept. 30, 1991. He was restored to power in 1994 by U.S. troops, but a term limit forced him to step down in 1996 and he was replaced by his protege, Rene Preval. Aristide began his second term in February.

Before Monday's palace raid, the gunmen tried to attack the national penitentiary, but they were rebuffed, Maurice said.

The attackers then moved on to the palace, lobbing a grenade at the building at about 2 a.m. and opening fire as they entered. Two police officers were killed and six others were injured, Maurice said.

By midmorning, police had regained control of the palace, shooting and killing one gunman, said National Palace security head Jean Oriel.

The rest escaped, some in a pickup truck that sped out of the palace, national radio reported. The gunmen shot and killed two passers-by as they fled, witnesses said.

Oriel said the gunman who died, like others in the group, was dressed in the khaki uniform of Haiti's former army, which Aristide disbanded after he returned to power in 1994.

Former soldiers have held several demonstrations against Aristide this year, calling for the re-establishment of the 7,500-strong army.

During the palace attack, the gunmen used two-way radios to communicate among themselves, some speaking Creole, while others spoke in English and Spanish, Maurice said.

A government official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the attackers identified their leader as the former police chief of northern Cap-Haitien city, Guy Philippe, who fled to the neighboring Dominican Republic last year with seven police officers accused of plotting a coup.

But Philippe called The Associated Press from the Dominican Republic to deny involvement in the attack, saying ``it was a staged event to give a pretext for attacking the opposition.''

After the attack, hundreds of Aristide supporters, wielding machetes, surrounded the palace, shouting, ``We'll never accept another coup d'etat.''

In apparent retribution for the palace attack, Aristide's supporters torched the headquarters of the Convergence opposition alliance in the capital as well as three buildings belonging to opposition parties.

They also burned the home of opposition leader Luc Mesadieu in northern Gonaives. Two men were killed by the mob and their bodies were burned, the independent radio Haiti Inter reported.

``I don't know what happened at the National Palace, but it has become a pretext to massacre the opposition,'' said opposition leader Gerard Gourgue, who said he had gone into hiding and feared for his life.

Culture and Communication Minister Guy Paul called the burning of the opposition headquarters ``a regrettable incident,'' but said ``the people are enraged and things like that are difficult to avoid.''

Aristide supporters also torched the home of opposition member Gerard Pierre-Charles in Petionville, just outside Port-au-Prince, and ransacked the French Institute, a cultural center run by the French government.

Aristide has accused the international community of ``economic terrorism'' in suspending aid. France has been among donors withholding aid over disputed elections last year.

American Airlines canceled its five flights to Port-au-Prince on Monday and morning flights on Tuesday.

Since Aristide's Lavalas Family party swept parliamentary and local elections in May 2000, Haiti has been mired in unrest, with the opposition calling the elections fraudulent and foreign donors refusing to release hundreds of millions of dollars in aid until results are revised.

There has also been mounting grass-roots opposition to Aristide within his party. Protesters have accused Aristide of failing to deliver on promises of basic services, such as sanitation and electricity.