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Haiti Calls Off Election Amid Killings, Turmoil : 17 Shot Down in Massacre at Polling Place in Capital; Government Dissolves Voting Council

November 30, 1987|DON A. SCHANCHE | Times Staff Writer

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — The first free election in Haiti in 30 years collapsed Sunday in gory violence.

At least 30 people died in Port-au-Prince alone, 17 of them in a brutal and bloody schoolhouse massacre. It is feared that the toll will be much higher when the turmoil that accompanied the opening of the polls subsides.

Witnesses saw troops of the U.S.-supported provisional government--which had pledged to safeguard the voting--join plainclothes killers in the schoolhouse massacre and other violent incidents in the capital.

Gunmen--and in at least two cases police and army troops--also fired on foreign journalists and election observers, killing a Dominican Republic television cameraman.

In hopes of stopping the bloodshed, the Independent Electoral Council of nine civic leaders appointed under Haiti's new constitution to conduct the transition to democracy announced a postponement of the election less than three hours after the polls opened. At least some of the council's members went into hiding, its president, Ernst Mirville, said in a telephone call from his own hide-out.

In a coldly worded statement Sunday afternoon, the army-led National Government Council responded by ordering the election council disbanded. The statement accused the council's members, who worked against time and government obstruction to prepare the election, of violating the constitution, "imperiling the unity of the nation" and "inviting the interference of foreign powers in the internal affairs of the country."

In Washington, the U.S. responded by suspending all non-humanitarian economic aid to the military-dominated government.

The Rev. Leslie Griffiths, a Church of England observer, said that two parishioners died when rock- and gun-wielding bands of men invaded and desecrated four Roman Catholic churches. "They struck old people on their heads with rocks," Griffiths said. He said that witnesses identified 17 army soldiers in another attack that silenced a Catholic radio station.

Robert E. White, a human rights activist and former U.S. ambassador to El Salvador who is one of more than 200 international election observers here, said that in two instances when his group came under fire while visiting polling stations, "the (Haitian) military cooperated with the Tontons Macoutes"--former secret policemen of the Duvalier dictatorship who have been widely blamed for election-week terrorism here.

The communique dissolving the election council was signed by Lt. Gen. Henri Namphy, who had been seen by the United States, Canada, France and other Western countries as the best hope of seeing this nation through a transition from the Duvalier dictatorship to a freely elected civilian government. Namphy later appeared on national television making a brief, aggressive speech pledging now seemingly impossible elections before February.

Army Role Crucial

After months of open hostility or indifference to the largely American-financed election process by the Namphy government, American and other diplomats still had said they believed the council would deploy the army to protect voters going to the polls.

Instead, with the apparent blessing of the regime, soldiers joined armed Duvalier loyalists in a rampage that terrorized Port-au-Prince and, according to sketchy reports from other parts of the primitive, poverty-ridden country, other areas as well. In Gonaive, Haiti's fourth-largest city, sources interviewed by telephone said army troops had invaded the polling places, destroying ballots and firing into the air to frighten away potential voters.

American diplomats, who had repeatedly expressed confidence in Namphy's willingness to safeguard the elections, refused to comment on their apparent betrayal by the government council. But diplomats from many of the other embassies who had supported the council appeared to be stunned by the day of terror.

"I frankly don't know if we trusted the wrong people, or if they simply couldn't handle the job, or if they just lied to us," said one diplomat about the government's apparent collaboration with the rampaging terrorists. He said the Namphy government seemed to have no regard for international opinion.

Burst Into School

In the worst of the incidents, eyewitnesses said that 40 to 60 men whom they identified as Tontons Macoutes burst into the capital city's Ecole Argentine elementary school, where about 100 voters were waiting to cast ballots for president and the National Assembly.

"They just opened up with guns and went after people with machetes," one shaken witness said. Another witness said that "legs were cut off, people's guts were hanging out, faces were shot away."

Reporters and photographers who rushed to the scene moments after the invaders left found horribly mutilated bodies lying in the school courtyard and sprawled in schoolrooms where victims had futilely sought safety.

Gunmen Return

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