Heavy gunfire in Haitian capital on 10th anniversary of Aristide's return from exile

Saturday, October 16th 2004, 9:35 am
By: News On 6

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (AP) _ Protesters set fire to barricades and gunfire rang out in Haiti's troubled capital as loyalists of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide marked the 10th anniversary of his return from exile.

At least 54 people have been killed in Port-au-Prince during two weeks of shootouts and beheadings that have only further thrown the country into turmoil since Aristide was ousted yet again and sent into exile in February and devastating floods left 200,000 people homeless.

Former Haitian soldiers who hold sway over much of the countryside are threatening to deploy into Port-au-Prince over the objections of the interim government, which is backed by an overextended and beleaguered U.N. peacekeeping force.

On Friday, it was unclear who was doing the shooting as police in cars and on foot entered the barricaded Bel Air slum, a stronghold of Aristide followers.

Automatic gunfire also echoed across the La Saline slum and the Delmas neighborhood. A plume of smoke rose behind the presidential palace as people in Bel Air set a bonfire of tires and trash.

Jean Robert, the driver of a Haitian Red Cross vehicle, said they could not react quickly.

``Even if we knew of people injured in there, we couldn't go in because it's so dangerous.''

There was no help for the wounded at Port-au-Prince's main hospital. Gunshot victims were among 61 patients in the emergency room, where there were no doctors or nurses.

Jean Claude Cine, a security guard and the only hospital employee in sight, said some refused to come to work because of the danger while others couldn't leave because buses weren't running. He said he had seen at least three bodies with gunshot wounds brought to the hospital late Thursday and early Friday.

Police spokeswoman Gessy Coicou told reporters that 21 police officers have been killed and 23 wounded since March. The Haitian Press Network said 10 officers were killed in the past two weeks, and five were decapitated.

That would raise the toll to at least 54 people killed in two weeks in the capital.

The violence is crippling a massive humanitarian mission to help the survivors of Tropical Storm Jeanne in the northwestern city of Gonaives, where several relief agencies have suspended operations, spokeswoman Maite Alvarez of London-based Oxfam told The Associated Press on Friday. About 2,000 people died from the storm.

The violence has blocked 113 containers of relief food for Gonaives at Port-au-Prince's port because workers were too scared to leave home, the World Food Program reported.

Violence in Gonaives, where street gangs and ordinary people have been looting food aid, also is a problem.

``Though we're not exactly being targeted, we just think that at the moment the situation is very volatile,'' Alvarez said, ``and we'd rather be safe than sorry.''

She said the World Food Program, Catholic Relief Services, Save the Children and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies all have temporarily stopped work there.

Aristide's backers are demanding his return from exile as they mark his restoration to power in 1994 through a U.S. intervention that ended three years of brutal military rule.

Aristide fled again Feb. 29, accused of corruption, profiting from cocaine smuggling and using police to suppress his opponents. He left Haiti on a U.S.-chartered plane as ex-soldiers leading a bloody rebellion neared Port-au-Prince.

Now in South Africa, Aristide has accused the United States of orchestrating his ouster and insists he remains Haiti's democratically elected leader. The United States denies his charges and says he signed his resignation before he boarded the plane.

This week, heavily armed ex-soldiers have been threatening to deploy in Port-au-Prince to halt the violence, saying police are corrupt and U.N. peacekeepers who replaced the U.S. Marines in June are ineffective.

``We are mobilizing ... carrying out the weapons inspections,'' former Maj. Remissainthe Ravix told Associated Press Television News on Thursday.

With fewer than half the 8,000 troops promised, the Brazilian-led force is overextended in the nation of 8 million, and ex-soldiers continue to hold sway over much of the countryside.