Opponents of Aristide march in Haiti's capital

Government loyalists hurl rocks, start fights

February 16, 2004|By Carol J. Williams | Carol J. Williams,LOS ANGELES TIMES

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti - Impassioned government loyalists hurled rocks from atop the national television station onto opposition demonstrators yesterday as they tried to march into the center of Haiti's capital, sparking fights and police gunfire in another display of the deep divisions that some here say signal a looming civil war.

Yesterday's march from the hilltop suburb of Petionville into the poor and hostile neighborhoods of central Port-au-Prince was a nervous and frequently halted procession. Members of gangs supporting President Jean-Bertrand Aristide sporadically rushed from the sidewalks, scattering frightened demonstrators until the event's organizers, fearful of further violence, called off the march.

It was the second time since a bloody uprising by rebels began Feb. 5 in the city of Gonaives that the president's mainstream political opponents have tried to take their own grievances to the streets, only to be attacked.

A rally planned for Thursday was crushed before it started when pro-Aristide gang members built barricades throughout Port-au-Prince, set them on fire and stoned the few people who dared try to march.

In contrast to Thursday's confrontations when police stood idly by, police in riot gear chased down and detained yesterday several gang members who menaced the procession until it reached the TV station.

Police had tried to steer marchers away from the place, a stronghold of Aristide's Lavalas Party, but students within the crowd insisted on following their planned route. Police gave up defending them once gang members began throwing rocks and chanting "Aristide for life!"

"We are calling off the march because we, as the organizers, do not want to be accused of allowing it to become violent," Evans Paul, a leader of the Group of 184 civil society movement, told journalists.

Resentment toward Aristide and his party has been mounting since fraudulent elections in 2000, which encouraged international donors to cut aid, worsening Haiti's economic crisis. Opponents want Aristide to step down.

After meeting with other Western Hemisphere leaders to discuss the Haitian crisis Friday, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell issued a vague appeal to Aristide to "reach out to the opposition, to make sure that thugs are not allowed to break up peaceful demonstrations."

Police did make an effort to protect the marchers along the route, but pro-Aristide groups had set up burning barricades at Place Jeremie, the intended endpoint in the heart of the capital. Many in the opposition crowd feared walking into a trap if they continued and heeded organizers' advice to go home.

The march began with just a few people, but as it moved along the five-mile route it picked up hundreds of supporters who lined the streets, listening to radios or conferring via cellular phone to check on security before joining in. By the time the march reached the TV station, more than 1,000 people were chanting denunciations of Aristide and hoisting placards calling on the nation's patron saint to "Save Haiti."

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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