5 killed during protest in Haiti

Shooting injures dozens at rally against Aristide

March 08, 2004|By Carol J. Williams | Carol J. Williams,LOS ANGELES TIMES

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti - Gunmen presumed loyal to exiled President Jean-Bertrand Aristide ambushed a march yesterday by hundreds of thousands of Haitians celebrating his ouster, killing at least five people and wounding 20.

The violence was the worst such incident since Aristide fled to Africa a week ago, and the gunfire unleashed panic among the huge crowd, which had been chanting its hopes for a new Haiti in the parks and avenues surrounding the presidential palace, Aristide's former residence.

Marchers dropped their flags, placards and water bottles as they scrambled for cover in the walled side streets that lead to the sprawling Champs de Mars green downtown.

The killings, apparently committed by a small number of gunmen, were likely to intensify pressure on the more than 2,000 foreign peacekeepers in Haiti - most of them U.S. Marines - to disarm supporters of Aristide's Lavalas Party. Yesterday's demonstration further testified to broad support for Aristide's departure, despite his claims to have been pressured to leave by U.S. and French officials.

Marines and French gendarmes had been patrolling the march route throughout the five-hour event, but they left the area where the shooting occurred about half an hour before the attack. Some of the shots came from snipers on balconies or rooftops in the volatile Bel Air neighborhood flanking the Champs de Mars, witnesses said. Neither foreign forces nor Haitian police responded immediately, and no one was arrested or detained.

"No one came to stop them. They had started walking along with us, and then they just opened fire," said Almil Castell, still wearing his bloody polo shirt after doctors bandaged a bullet wound in his left arm.

Marine Maj. Richard Crusan, speaking at the multinational force's base at the Port-au-Prince airport, denied that the foreign troops had left the demonstration route before gunfire broke out. He later said three Marines at the presidential palace about two blocks away had fired their weapons "in the direction from which the shots were being fired," but had no other details.

The commander of the French contingent, Col. Daniel Leplatois, defended the security forces. "We're not able to secure the lives of all of the demonstrators," he said.

Among the dead was Roberto Ortega, a New York-based correspondent for the Spanish Antenna 3 television network. Michael Laughlin, an American photographer with the South Florida Sun-Sentinel newspaper, suffered a bullet wound in his shoulder.

Ortega died at the hospital of a stomach wound. Minutes earlier, another victim brought in for treatment, student Cesar Milford, succumbed to his injuries, said Valcin Ricardo, who helped carry Milford to the emergency room.

The bodies of two other victims lay on the pavement outside the palace for at least an hour after the shootings. The wife of one of them, Josephat Lukner, knelt beside his corpse.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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