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Aristide Urges Peace After Rally Sparks Gunfight in Haiti

BY Admin  March 8, 2004 at 12:40 PM EST

Thousands of demonstrators marched through the capital Port-au-Prince on Sunday, calling for Aristide to face trial for alleged corruption and killings by his armed militants.

As the demonstrators, including rebel leaders, approached the gates of the National Palace, suspected supporters of the deposed leader fired automatic weapons from street level and nearby rooftops into the crowd.

U.S. Marines returned fire from within the palace gates, killing one gunman, said Col. Charles Gurganus.

Four other Haitians and a Spanish television correspondent, Ricardo Ortega, were killed in the gunfight. About 30 others were wounded, including two Haitian police officers and Michael Laughlin, a photographer for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel newspaper.

Some in the crowd blamed the Marines and other international troops for not doing more to protect them.

“The Marines need to change the rules of engagement,” prominent Aristide opponent Charles Baker told The New York Times. “They need to protect us or they need to go home and let us protect ourselves.”

Haitians moved injured people to the gates of the palace, where U.S. Marines provided first aid and transported eight to a hospital, according to the Miami Herald. Other Marines and French troops had stopped to secure checkpoints along the route of the march but did not continue on to the palace.

Aristide, in his first news conference since fleeing the country Feb. 29 after a three-week antigovernment uprising, reasserted that he was abducted from his homeland, a charge the United States has dismissed as “nonsense.”

“The fact is there was a political abduction,” he told reporters in Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic, according to Reuters. “This unfortunately has paved the way for occupation and we launch an appeal for peaceful resistance (in Haiti). I’m choosing my words carefully: for a peaceful resistance.”

Aristide also contended that he is still the elected president of Haiti. Before leaving the Caribbean nation, Aristide signed a letter of resignation that said he was stepping down to avoid a bloodbath.

In Monday’s address, he thanked the Caribbean Community, Central African Republic, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and supporters in the United States and elsewhere, saying “one day the constitutional order might be restored in Haiti by the democratically elected president and that remains me,” CNN reported.

Haitian Prime Minister Yvon Neptune condemned Sunday’s violence, saying, “I have instructed the national police force to take all possible measures to find and apprehend the assassins from whatever political corner they may be from.”

He said police and foreign troops should start disarming people with illegal weapons.

“I urge all sides to stop the demonstrations until we have a new prime minister and a new government and we can deal with security in the country,” Neptune said.

A seven-member Council of Sages started meeting over the weekend to pick a new prime minister. They are expected to announce their decision in the next few days.