Food and medical crisis looms in troubled Haiti

Rebels sharpened their attack skills and aid workers prepared for the worst as suspense grew in the bloody Haitian insurrection that has left at least 49 people dead.

Roadblocks have halted most food shipments since rebels trying to oust President Jean-Bertrand Aristide seized the city of Gonaives last week and torched police stations in 10 other towns.

“The problem is very grave,” said Raoul Elysee, of the Haitian Red Cross, meeting with rebels and aid officials to discuss ways to deliver food, medicine and fuel. He said emergency supplies of flour, cooking oil, and other basics would run out in four days.

In Washington, western hemisphere nations on Friday called on all parties quickly to implement confidence-building measures to ensure a peaceful, democratic outcome.

United States Secretary of State Colin Powell said Aristide’s verbal assurances have not been enough.

“What we need now is action,” Powell said after meeting with hemispheric colleagues.

Aristide, he said, “must reach out to the opposition, to make sure that thugs are not allowed to break up peaceful demonstrations”.

On Thursday, Aristide militants hurled rocks and blocked a protest route to crush an opposition demonstration in Port-au-Prince, the capital. The government said between seven and a dozen attackers have been arrested, but a foreign technical adviser to the police said there have been no arrests.

Powell said the US and other hemispheric countries agree on the need for a constitutional outcome.

“We will accept no outcome that, in any way, attempts to remove the elected president of Haiti,” he said.

Opposition politicians refuse to participate in elections to rectify flawed 2000 balloting, swept by Aristide’s party, unless Haiti’s leader steps down.
He refuses.

The rebels say they will only lay down their weapons if they oust Aristide.

Many who once backed Aristide have turned on him as poverty deepens while the president’s clique enjoys lavish lifestyles some charge are funded by corruption.

At the hospital in Gonaives, the fourth-largest city where the rebellion erupted on February 5, more than a dozen people waited to see doctors who never showed up. The Red Cross warned the unrest was jeopardising urgent health care needs.

Relatives took patients from the hospital after the fighting broke out, carrying them on their backs or on motorcycles, said Cerrament Herat (68), a hospital janitor.

Only one badly malnourished man remained in the hospital on Friday, lying unattended in a bed.

Pierre Joseph, another janitor, said doctors were afraid to return following a gunbattle at the hospital a week ago, when police stormed in carrying a wounded officer. With rebels in pursuit and officers in a panic, the police opened fire inside the hospital walls, killing at least three civilian bystanders who were trying to hide, he said.

Rebels dragged a wounded officer from the hospital and stoned him to death, smashing in his head, according to an AP photographer. Police had tried to retake the city, but failed.

The International Committee of the Red Cross warned many people in need of medical care were not getting it, and urged combatants to respect international rules of combat.

Schools and many shops remained closed in Gonaives. A single bank reopened on Friday, while dozens stood outside another desperate for cash transfers from relatives overseas that are some families’ sole source of income.

Gas prices have more than doubled, with fuel mainly reaching the city in small bottles brought by motorcycle couriers.

More than half the population has fled Gonaives to escape escalating violence in recent months, leaving about 100 000 people, Elysee said.

In the western city of St Marc, where police have driven out rebels, anti-Aristide militants burned down a clinic on Wednesday because officials refused to hand over two wounded anti-government militants.

On Friday, armed Aristide partisans stopped the driver of Aristide Senator Gerard Gilles and said they found at least seven assault weapons in the car, Radio Metropole reported.

It said the accused Gilles of working against the government with a colleague who has called on Aristide to resign.

In Port-au-Prince, United Nations representative Adama Guindo appealed to police and rebels to open a “humanitarian corridor” to northern Haiti, which has been inaccessible because of barricades, some manned by drunken and aggressive thugs.

The UN World Food Programme has been unable to deliver food to about 268 000 people dependent on food aid in northern Haiti. The agency is negotiating to get 450kg of rice delivered next week to the port of Cap-Haitien, Haiti’s second-largest city of more than half a million people.

Aristide militants have barricaded the city to guard against any rebel incursion. A barge of gasoline was on the way to the city, which has been without gas and power for nearly a week.

Rebels on Friday discussed how to better defend the city against a police attack. Some set up a heavy machine gun at the edge of town while others added discarded refrigerators and other junk to barricades fortifying the city.

There appear to be about 100 rebels in Gonaives and the police force for Haiti’s eight million people numbers only 5 000. They are often outnumbered and outgunned.—Sapa-AP

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