Front's bid to dump Aristide falls short But gunmen's group remains major force

November 02, 1993|By Ginger Thompson | Ginger Thompson,Staff Writer

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti -- Foreign diplomats are quick to dismiss the pro-military Front for the Progress and Advancement of Haiti (FRAPH) as a collection of street gangs whose members have a lot of guns, but little power to threaten the restoration of democracy.

Still, they have managed to derail international efforts to bring back exiled President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. And on the streets of Haiti, they are seen as this country's most potent political force.

One United Nations official refused to respond to FRAPH demands for the resignation of Father Aristide, who was ousted two years ago in a violent coup. The group, led by ex-military officers, also threatened to gather representatives of the country's Parliament and install a new government.

Yesterday, those threats appeared hollow. There was no meeting of Parliament. Instead, families visited cemeteries to celebrate the day of the dead, or All Souls' Day.

"They don't have any legitimacy," a U.N. official said of FRAPH. "They don't have any control over the Parliament. They're just making a lot of noise.

He added, "As soon as things settle down, the army will put them in line. The army is just letting them do this because they want to create an atmosphere of chaos and insecurity."

The people of this impoverished, blood-soaked country fear FRAPH, saying it was powerful enough to have thwarted a U.N. accord that was to have returned Father Aristide to power last weekend.

The front's vicious threats have sent supporters of Father Aristide into hiding.

Even officials of Prime Minister Robert Malval's interim government do not sleep in their own homes. And the front's gunmen, known as "attaches," are responsible for hundreds of assassinations over the last few months.

"People may ask, where are all of Aristide's supporters," said Peggy Bupet, a human rights adviser in Mr. Malval's Cabinet, referring to the 67 percent of the voters who elected Mr. Aristide. "We say that if the FRAPH would put away its guns for one day, there would be 2 million people on the streets asking for Aristide and demanding justice."

FRAPH members act with an air of invincibility. They speed around the capital in trucks with the barrels of their automatic rifles hanging out the windows.

Each day, their members gather in front of their central meeting place, a crumbling downtown bar, to drink and chant.

Almost all of them wave guns and tell reporters how they are prepared to die to keep their country out of the hands of Father Aristide, a Roman Catholic priest.

"If he were in this country," said one man attending a FRAPH rally, "then you and I would not be able to stand here because the country would be burning."

"If he comes back," added another, "I will eat him."

And they don't care who sees their acts of violence. On Saturday, in front of an office of the U.S. Embassy, a man in ragged civilian clothes pointed a rifle at a teen-ager and began screaming. The young man tried to walk away, but the gunman lifted his rifle and threatened to shoot.

The teen-ager walked reluctantly toward the man, waving his arms at him and pleading with him to calm down. The youth, about 17 years old, tried to get into his car and drive away, but the man screamed more and raised his gun to the teen's chest.

The gunman, gray and balding, pushed the youth to the passenger side of the car, a beat-up brown Toyota, and then the gunman got into the driver's seat and sped away.

FRAPH has used this kind of terror and the support of the military to turn itself into an important player in Haiti's political crisis. However, their rallies are not usually well-attended, attracting at the most about 300 people.

It appears they are more successful at keeping their opponents quiet than attracting ardent followers.

"FRAPH is not important in and of itself," said one official at the U.S. Embassy. "But we think they are important to the extent that they represent the military and to the extent that their power is derived from the military."

Many of the group's leaders are former military officers. Emanuel Constant, president of the group, was chief of Haiti's military intelligence for two years. And Louis-Jode Chamblain, co-founder of FRAPH, was a sergeant in the military.

Lt. Gen. Raoul Cedras, head of the de facto government, has still not responded to invitations by the United Nations to meet tomorrow with representatives of Father Aristide to discuss a solution to the political crisis.

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