Haiti rebellion reaches new heights
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By Michael Christie and Alistair Scrutton
Port-au-Prince - Columns of balaclava-wearing rebels overran Haiti's second-largest city Cap Haitien on Sunday and drove police from their headquarters in an escalation of a bloody rebellion against President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.
Heavy gunfire rattled throughout the city as a rebel force of about 200 scattered poorly-trained and outnumbered police before them and people ran for cover. Flights from the capital were suspended.
"I believe the city is under rebel control," Alejandro Chicheri, said a spokesperson for the World Food Programme in Haiti. He had been in contact with aid workers in Cap Haitien. "But I think there is still some combat left."
Aristide, in an address to state television, said he had sent in reinforcements and local radio reported the insurgents had left the city after burning down the police station and freeing prisoners from a jail.
Local hotel owner Nicolas Bussenius said people looted the port for grain bags, prisoners had been freed from jail and sporadic gunfire was heard. A Reuters TV crew flying by in a plane saw smoke arising from at least two buildings.
"People are now worried that with prisoners free they are going to settle old scores," Bussenius told Reuters by telephone from Cap Haitien.
Residents of Cap Haitien, the last major pro-government bastion in the north to hold out against the two-week revolt in which over 50 people have been killed, said trucks with rebels in military fatigues raced through the streets. Unconfirmed reports said the airport had been taken.
"I've asked for back-up from Port-au-Prince," Cap Haitien police commissioner Charles Chily told Reuters. "They said they're coming. We're waiting." Contact with the police commissioner was broken off shortly afterward and aid workers said the police station was burnt down.
The sudden attack on Cap Haitien, two weeks after it was isolated from the capital by the uprising which has spread through the north of the impoverished Caribbean country, came a day after a United States-led peace mission failed to get the political opposition to agree to a deal with Aristide.
Western diplomats, alarmed at the news of the assault on Cap Haitien, warned the insurgents they would not be allowed to take over the country of eight million.
"We will not accept them taking power in Port-au-Prince," a senior Western diplomat told reporters in the capital, speaking on condition he not be identified. "If they prove successful, they will be unable to translate military victory into a political solution."
While many Haitians celebrated Carnival dancing in the streets of the capital, near the presidential home on its outskirts the atmosphere was more tense. Pro-Aristide gangs had erected barricades on roads near the residence.
"While we dance and sing, we must also stay vigilant," Aristide told state TV as he honored Carnival queens in the presidential palace.
The rebellion, started by a street gang but now including ex-soldiers and a former death squad leader, capped months of demonstrations by foes of Aristide who want the president to resign but have distanced themselves from the armed rebels.
Closer to Port-au-Prince, armed rebels overnight attacked a police station in Poste Cazeaux 20km north of the capital, but pro-Aristide militia were in charge on Sunday.
It appeared to be the nearest assault yet to Haiti's capital since an armed gang took over the city of Gonaives on February 5 in a revolt that spread through the north to a dozen towns and villages.
Once regarded as a champion of Haiti's fragile democracy after decades of dictatorship, the priest turned president faces accusations of corruption and political violence.
He dismisses the opposition as a wealthy elite and has branded the armed rebels in the north "terrorists."
Officials from the United States, Canada, France, the Organisation of American States and the Caribbean Community (Caricom) on Saturday got Aristide to agree to the selection of a new prime minister by a body of "wise men," and the appointment of a new cabinet.
But faced with a revolt in their ranks if they allow Aristide to remain as head of state, the political opposition composed of businessmen, civic leaders, artists and Aristide's political rivals refused to sign up.
They were given until Monday evening to come up with a final response.
United States and Canadian officials have said the international community would be willing to step in possibly with foreign police once an accord had been struck.