Unrest breaks out in Haiti lawmakers get set to return

September 28, 1994|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,Sun Staff Correspondent

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti -- Food riots, looting and demonstrations rippled through this excited capital yesterday as exiled parliamentarians prepared to return to take a major step toward ending the three-year military dictatorship.

U.S. troops were highly visible but did not intervene in any of the outbursts of popular desperation and sentiments as ordinary Haitians exercised their new right of free expression to taunt pro-junta lawmakers, and went well beyond the law to sack an aid warehouse.

There were several hours of high tension after a U.S. soldier was reported shot while guarding a government guest house, but his death was officially declared to be an apparent suicide, unconnected to the military intervention.

U.S. troops secured the parliamentary building in downtown Port-au-Prince early in the day, disarming one pro-junta deputy who tried to enter with his handgun in his belt.

Some 2,000 hungry Haitians looted a Roman Catholic charity's food warehouse yesterday in an impoverished part of the capital called St. Jean Bosco, fighting with each other for bags of rice and beans, witnesses said.

The 100-pound bags ripped, spilling rice on the ground. Men and women scooped up the food in containers and stuffed it into their shirts.

U.S. Military Police drove up and the rioters fled. When the MPs left after a few minutes, the looting resumed.

On Monday, 11 tons of food worth an estimated $35,000 was lost when Haitians ransacked a U.N. Development Programme warehouse.

Some humanitarian officials asked the U.S. military to protect food stocks. The U.S. government recommended that aid groups stop their distribution until the situation is stabilized.

The Parliament will be the scene of today's emergency legislative session, ordered by democratically elected President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

It purpose is to pass a new amnesty law to protect the military leaders from prosecution once they cede power by Oct. 15, as stipulated in the deal arranged by former President Jimmy Carter.

The reconvening of the two-chamber assembly for the first time in almost 18 months was described by U.S. Embassy spokesman Stanley Schrager as "a major symbol in the re-establishment of democratic institutions" in this country, which has been ruled by dictators for most of this century.

U.S. diplomats and military officials fear that supporters of Lt. Gen. Raoul Cedras, the Haitian army commander, might try to disrupt the meeting and delay the return of the populist priest, who was ousted almost exactly three years ago.

U.S. troops put razor wire around the perimeter and placed armored Humvees in front of and behind it. They also set up defense and observation posts on the roof. Haitian police, armed with rifles and handguns, could be seen in the compound, too.

Twelve exiled parliamentarians are being flown in from the United States to help ensure quorums in both the Senate and the House of Representatives for consideration of the new law.

They will be driven in a military convoy from the airport, possibly with diplomatic escorts, to the building.

While here, they will be protected by U.S. security forces.

Other lawmakers, who have been hiding in the provinces, were being encouraged to come to the session.

U.S. officials said that members of the illegally established Parliament, elected under military rule in January 1993, would not be allowed into the session. But Sen. Osny Eugene, a pro-junta lawmaker, was quoted on local radio as saying that he would declare a civil war if he was refused admission.

General Cedras has the constitutional right to be there to hear the lawmakers discuss if he and other coup leaders should be given amnesty. But it was not known if he would turn up.

Emile Jonaissant, the military-appointed president who is internationally regarded as illegal, has called a rival session of the 1993 rubber-stamp legislature for next Tuesday, but U.S. officials regard the move as irrelevant to the chain of events leading to Father Aristide's return.

Throughout the day, thousands of demonstrators besieged the Parliament, alternately cheering pro-Aristide lawmakers and booing those associated with the military junta.

"Robbers, robbers," they shouted, as they banged on the cars of lawmakers who support the junta.

When Cesar Amontes, a well-known pro-Aristide lawmaker, left the building, his car was instantly surrounded by cheering and waving supporters.

Mr. Amontes, in a brief interview through his car window, said: "I think Haitians always want to follow the grand design, to follow the dignity of man.

"There will be discussion because there are always differences of opinion. There could even be trouble. We always have trouble. But I am not afraid. The people know I have worked well for them. For me there is no danger."

Mr. Schrager said the amnesty law would be "a very sensitive" issue because it would define how extensive the protection of forces who have terrorized the country for three years should be, and would also contribute to "reconciliation."

He corrected his statement Monday that the U.S. Justice Department was involved in drafting the law, saying that Haitian parliamentary leaders were preparing their own versions.

The major role for the Justice Department here was to re-organize and retrain the police force, and establish a police training course, he said.

In its emergency session, Parliament may also take action to split the police force from the army. They now operate together.

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