Aristide calls for help as rebels strike again

Former soldiers took Haiti’s rebellion to the key central city of Hinche, torching the police station and freeing prisoners as President Jean-Bertrand Aristide appealed for international help to end a bloody uprising.

Rebels have driven police out of more than a dozen towns in 12 days and now control most roads in the Artibonite district, Haiti’s breadbasket and home to almost one million people.

“Blood has flowed in Hinche,” Aristide told reporters late on Monday. “It may be that the police cannot cope with this kind of attack.”

France, Haiti’s former coloniser which has 4 000 military personnel in its Caribbean territories of Martinique and Guadeloupe, said it was weighing the risks of sending in peacekeepers.

“Can we deploy a peacekeeping force?” French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin asked on France-Inter radio on Tuesday. “We are in contact with all of our partners in the framework of the United Nations, which has sent a humanitarian mission to Haiti to see what is possible.”

He noted that deploying peacekeepers “is very difficult” when a nation is in the throes of violence. French officials were meeting on Tuesday to discuss possibilities.

Aristide’s government last month rebuffed an offer of peacekeepers from the 15-nation Caribbean Community.

Fearing an exodus of refugees, UN High Commissioner for Refugees Ron Redmond said the agency was meeting in Washington with United States and Caribbean officials to discuss how to cope with any flight of Haitians. So far, there has been no significant increase in Haitians fleeing for US shores as they did in the 1990s.

“We would certainly hope that these governments would receive fleeing asylum seekers,” with the UN High Commission for Refugees ready to help, Redmond told reporters.

Witnesses said about 50 rebels descended on Monday on the station in Hinche and killed three officers before the police fled the city of 50 000. Hinche is about 112km northeast of Port-au-Prince.

They said the rebels were led by Louis-Jodel Chamblain, a former soldier who led the feared paramilitary group Fraph — the Front for the Advancement and Progress of Haiti — which killed and maimed hundreds of Aristide supporters under military dictatorship between 1991 and 1994.

Aristide, a slum priest who preached revolution to Haiti’s poor, swept 1990 elections to become the country’s first freely elected leader. He was ousted in a coup in 1991, restored when the US sent 20 000 troops to Haiti in 1994, and disbanded the army in 1995.

In its place is a police force estimated at less than 5 000 people trained to deal with riots, not combat, that in outlying posts is outnumbered and outgunned by the rebels.

There are not believed to be more than 100 rebels in Gonaives, where the rebellion to oust Aristide exploded on February 5. But they repelled a police attack to retake the city last week in fighting that killed 30 people, mostly officers, according to the Haitian Red Cross.

At least 56 people have died as the revolt has spread from Gonaives, about 112km northwest of Port-au-Prince.

Reprisal killings continue in rebel-held and police-held areas.

On Sunday night, Aristide loyalists reportedly killed two anti-government supporters in the port town of St Marc.

Aristide refused on Monday to discuss strategies for halting the revolt.

“A group of terrorists are breaking democratic order,” Aristide said. “We have the responsibility to use the law and dialogue to take a peaceful way” to quell the uprising that has blocked food, fuel and medical shipments to northern Haiti.

Discontent has grown in Haiti, a nation of eight million people, since Aristide’s party swept flawed legislative elections in 2000 and international donors froze millions of dollars.

Aristide is accused of using the police and armed militants to stifle dissent and allowing corrupt officials to enrich themselves while Haitians suffer deepening poverty.

Opposition politicians refuse to participate in new elections unless Aristide steps down, and the rebels say they will lay down their weapons only when he is ousted.

On Monday rebels escorted an aid convoy past shipping containers, old refrigerators and burned-out cars blocking the entrance to Gonaives.

Led by the Geneva-based International Committee of the Red Cross, the convoy carried 1,6 tons of supplies, including blood and surgical equipment.

A surgeon and a physician arrived to treat about 40 people wounded in the fighting. Hospital administrator Gabriel Honorat said the wounded are being cared for in their homes following a battle at the hospital in which police killed three bystanders.

In addition, the aid agency Care began distributing vegetable oil and cereals to about 50 000 needy people in Gonaives, where prices of food and fuel have shot up.

The rebels meanwhile, vowed to take more towns.

“We’re going to take a major part of Haiti,” said Winter Etienne, a rebel leader.

Exiled reinforcements have come to help the rebels from the Dominican Republic and include Guy Philippe, the police chief of Cap-Haitien who fled after being accused of fomenting a coup.

Etienne said Philippe would attack Cap-Haitien, Haiti’s second city of 500 000 people, where Aristide supporters have built barricades across roads and torched homes of opponents.

“Our fight is for a better country … We are fighting for the presidency, we’re fighting for the people,” said Philippe in an interview taped on Saturday in Gonaives that was obtained by Associated Press Television News. — Sapa-AP

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