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Violent, Antigovernment Protests Spread Through Haiti

BY Admin  February 9, 2004 at 2:30 PM EDT

The unrest began Thursday, when armed antigovernment protesters took over Gonaives — Haiti’s fourth largest city — setting police stations and government buildings on fire and driving police out of the area along the Caribbean Sea. At least seven police officers and two civilians died in gun battles.

By Sunday, looting and destruction had spread to several cities including St. Marc, a city of about 100,00 people, and police headquarters were set ablaze in the areas of Trou de Nord, Listere and Grand Goave, according to Radio Metropole.

In St. Marc, looters ransacked stores, stealing televisions, radios and food, and rebels barricaded roads with trees, garbage and burning tires. The courthouse and police station were both destroyed and the city’s pro-Aristide mayor and other members of the ruling party were forced to flee.

“We’re just waiting for Aristide to go,” said one rebel leader, Louis Andrel. “Step by step, town by town. When we have all the departments, we’ll go down to Port-au-Prince,” Andrel told Reuters.

In all cities, police were forced to back down against rebels and residents, who formed neighborhood groups to help the rebel forces. In several instances, crowds dragged the corpses of police officers through the streets, beating and maiming them.

Thursday’s revolt has been brewing slowly since Aristide’s party won contested legislative elections in 2000. Over the last several months protestors have held violent demonstrations in the capital city of Port-au-Prince and 69 people have died throughout the country in violent clashes with government forces.

The main rebel group in the most recent unrest is the Gonaives Resistance Front, former supporters of Aristide who once served as his henchmen. The group has since turned on Aristide following accusations that the president had a part in the suspicious death of one of its leaders.

Aristide, a former Catholic priest, was once thought to be the hope of democracy in Haiti — a tiny Caribbean nation of 8 million people — but has since been accused of corruption and brutality by his opponents. He has been under pressure to resign but refuses, saying he will see his second term through to its end in 2006.

On Sunday, Haitian Prime Minister Yvon Neptune accused the opposition of planning a coup. The government has said the main problem is a small, mulatto elite, opposed to majority black rule.

“It is not the government that is organizing the violence,” Neptune said.

In some areas, Aristide supporters have barricaded their homes and streets to prevent antigovernment rebels from entering their towns.

On Saturday, tens of thousands of pro-government supporters marched through the streets of Port-au-Prince to celebrate the anniversary of Aristide’s second presidential inauguration.