Haiti on the brink
CAP-HAITIEN, Haiti (AP) -- Armed civilians loyal to President Jean-Bertrand Aristide stoked burning barricades and blocked roads to Haiti's second-largest city for a second day Wednesday, vowing to keep rebels from advancing and to stem a violent uprising that has killed at least 42.
Sporadic gunfire crackled over the northern port city of Cap-Haitien overnight in an apparent attempt to intimidate any rebels or their supporters.
Under cover of darkness, with the city blacked out because there was no fuel for generators, attackers looted a warehouse in the city, carrying away bags of rice, flour and other staples, witnesses said.
A police outpost in the remote northwest hamlet of Bassin Bleu was torched by gunmen Monday in a hit-and-run operation, Radio Vision 2000 reported. It said police had abandoned the town Sunday.
The uprising began Thursday in Haiti's fourth-largest city, Gonaives, presenting a dangerous turning point in a political crisis that began after flawed elections in 2000. A similar revolt in 1985 also started in Gonaives and led to the downfall of the 29-year Duvalier family dictatorship.
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Haiti on the brink
by Tim Fisher, 11 February 2004
Haiti appears to be on the brink of a major humanitarian crisis as armed groups opposed to President Jean-Bertrand Aristide battle police for control of several towns and cities in the north of the country. The UN's World Food Programme says deliveries of aid supplies are proving difficult because of the security situation.
The latest wave of violence in the Caribbean nation, which began last Thursday, has claimed at least 42 lives and is being described by some as the strongest challenge thus far to the once enormously popular president.
President under fire
Opposition to Mr Aristide - a former priest who was elected for his first term in 1990 - has been growing since controversial elections in 2000, which returned him to power for a second time, and the start of his ruling by decree last year. Once regarded as a champion of the people, and welcomed back enthusiastically when returned to power by the United States after he was deposed by a military coup in 1991, the president has recently been labelled by some as a "dictator and a despot" and accused of violating human rights.
However, while Mr Aristide has accused the opposition of pushing for a coup to force him from office, the "rebel" groups now operating in the north of Haiti appear not to be linked to his political opponents.
According to Christian Girault, an expert on Haitian affairs at the French National Centre for Scientific Research, at least some of the people now in control of the city of Gona´ves are contraband "traffickers [who] don't see any benefit in siding with Aristide any more."
Indeed, opponents of the president in the capital, Port au Prince, admit they want to see Mr Aristide go, but say they are not connected with the armed groups involved in the current fighting.
Relying on the people
Haiti has been without an army since 1995, which leaves the police force of some 5,000 officers with the task of trying to maintain the status quo in a nation of close to 8.5 million people. Prime Minister Yvon Neptune has admitted the police cannot restore order alone, but says the government is also relying on the people to back the president. Pro-Aristide militia groups have already struck back against the rebels, particularly in Haiti's second city, Cap-Haitien, but foreign involvement might be the solution if things escalate, says Christian Girault:
"Probably the international community would have to impose mediation [... ] and the most important influence in that case would be the United States."
The United States has a history of intervening in Haitian affairs, having invaded the country without a fight in 1994 and subsequently steering it back to civilian rule under President Aristide. But it has no immediate plans to intervene this time, and has been calling for a political solution to be brokered with the help of a body such as the Organisation of American States.
Christian Girault doubts whether President Aristide will serve out his full term, due to end in roughly two years time, but is concerned that the Haitian opposition offers no clear alternative to the country's current leadership:
"The political opposition is very divided, and there also a big risk of some strong men coming and wanting power just for the power, with no programme at all. It's disturbing."
Others, too, fear the possible scenario of the incumbent president being ousted without there being a credible political force to take over the reins.
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