Heavy gunfire in Haitian capital as Aristide loyalists demonstrate

Friday, October 15th 2004, 7:45 pm
By: News On 6

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (AP) _ Heavy gunfire erupted Friday when police streamed into a slum stronghold of ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide as his loyalists blocked streets with flaming debris to mark the 10th anniversary of Aristide's return from his first exile.

Tensions surged in the capital, where two weeks of shootouts and beheadings have killed at least 48 people. 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.

The U.S. State Department urged all nonessential embassy personnel and family members to leave the country. The department also upgraded its travel warning for Haiti, saying moving in and outside the capital can be hazardous because police are ineffective and peacekeepers are not fully deployed.

The violence is crippling a massive humanitarian mission to help some 200,000 homeless survivors of Tropical Storm Jeanne in northwestern Gonaives city, where several relief agencies have suspended operations, Oxfam spokeswoman Maite Alvarez told The Associated Press on Friday.

It was unclear who was doing the shooting Friday as police in cars and on foot entered the barricaded Bel Air slum, which overlooks the presidential National Palace. A plume of acrid smoke rose as people set a bonfire of tires and trash.

A few hundred supporters of Aristide's Lavalas Family party held a peaceful demonstration there earlier, Haiti's Radio Plus reported, broadcasting chants of ``Only Lavalas, no matter what happens!''

The crackle of automatic gunfire also exploded in two other neighborhoods.

Aristide's backers are demanding his return from exile as they mark his restoration to power in 1994 through the intervention of 20,000 U.S. troops who ended three years of brutal military rule. Aristide fled again this past Feb. 29 as former soldiers leading a bloody rebellion neared Port-au-Prince.

The ex-soldiers have not been disarmed since U.S. Marines flew in the same day Aristide fled, then handed over in June to U.N. peacekeepers.

Haiti's latest crisis erupted when Aristide supporters demonstrated Sept. 30 to demand his return from exile in South Africa and an end to ``the occupation'' by foreign troops. Police reportedly shot and killed two protesters, and the next day three police were found beheaded.

Police spokeswoman Gessy Coicou told a news conference Friday that 21 police officers have been killed and 23 wounded in the line of duty since March. The Haitian Press Network said 10 officers were killed in the past two weeks, and five were beheaded.

Haiti's ex-soldiers and business leaders have accused U.N. peacekeepers of being ineffective.

Haiti's Chamber of Commerce criticized a ``flagrant paradox in the merciless struggle against terrorism of the great powers of the world and ... the surprising inadequacy of how international troops are deployed in Haiti.''

Business leaders called for a ``day of protest against terrorism,'' and many heeded the call Friday, staying home while banks, stores and gas stations were locked up. U.N. peacekeepers in armored vehicles rolled through deserted streets as police stood watch at intersections.

With fewer than half the 8,000 troops promised, the Brazilian-led force is overextended in the nation of 8 million.

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said Washington was pressing countries that have committed a total of 6,100 troops to deploy quickly. He said they expected Haiti to have 5,100 peacekeepers by the end of November.

Just before sunset Thursday, the central neighborhood of Poste Marchand was besieged by men running through the streets, firing shots into the air and burning cars just blocks from the National Palace, guarded by peacekeepers in armored cars.

In its travel advisory, the State Department warned Friday against ``the potential for looting; the presence of intermittent roadblocks set by armed gangs or by the police; and the possibility of random violent crime, including kidnapping, carjacking and assault.''

Several relief agencies suspended operations because of insecurity in Gonaives, Maite Alvarez of London-based Oxfam told The Associated Press on Friday.

``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.''

Alvarez said Oxfam water trucks in Gonaives still were filling up 20 water kiosks around the city _ which has had no utilities since the storm passed last month _ but she said that service probably would stop if a driver is attacked.

Human rights activists criticized the government for jailing dozens of Aristide supporters, including Roman Catholic Rev. Gerard Jean-Juste, who was detained at Saint Claire Church by a squad including masked officers, on suspicion he harbored political gangsters, officials said.

Police have reported detaining more than 140 people in the violence, and said 40 still were jailed.

Other Aristide allies behind bars include former Prime Minister Yvon Neptune and two politicians held on suspicion of masterminding violence _ Senate President Yvon Feuille and ex-legislator Roudy Herivaux. None has been formally charged.