New Haitian premier visits city that led uprising

In Gonaives, Latortue hails `freedom fighters'

March 21, 2004|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

GONAIVES, Haiti - Gerard Latortue, Haiti's new prime minister, appeared publicly with rebel leaders in this crumbling port city yesterday, seeking to close the chapter on months of violent upheaval that forced the recent departure of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

The trip was Latortue's first trip outside the capital, Port-au-Prince, since he was appointed March 9 to lead an interim government, and the event resonated with symbolism. The armed rebellion that shoved Aristide into exile on Feb. 29 sprung from here. So did the slave revolts that shuffled off Napoleon's rule in 1804, and the rebellion that led to the downfall of the dictator Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier.

"From today on we will be celebrating our 200th anniversary of independence," Latortue, who is from Gonaives, told a crowd of thousands who packed the town's sun-baked central plaza. "We think there will be a lot of change in Gonaives and in Haiti."

Latortue and his Cabinet, which he installed last week, are trying to send a clear message of stability after several months of bloody revolt and three years of a corrupt Aristide administration that have left the public sector in tatters and exhausted the people's trust.

With Haiti's national police department barely functioning, rebels have assumed de facto control in several cities, including Gonaives, where in early February they quickly dispersed an anemic police contingent and destroyed the police station.

A U.S.-led multinational task force of about 2,800 troops, based in Port-au-Prince, has begun to deploy detachments in Haiti's hinterlands. But rebel leaders said in interviews yesterday that they planned to keep their weapons until the national police department was strong enough to protect the citizens.

Latortue and his retinue, wearing slacks and open-necked shirts, arrived in two U.S. Army Black Hawk helicopters and a Chinook transport helicopter flown by U.S. troops. He was greeted by a rebel army commander who, in a suit and tie, presented him with a carved wooden key to the city.

Latortue, who has vowed to lead a nonpartisan government until elections can be held, hailed the rebels as "freedom fighters" and said he felt "overjoyed to be among" the residents of Gonaives.

Then the government officials and their bodyguards, and rebel commanders with their own bodyguards, jumped in a convoy of sport utility vehicles and sped through dusty streets jammed with pedestrians, bicycles and bleating mopeds.

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