PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — The government said it foiled an attempt Sunday by rebel army officers to overthrow the Haitian president, Lt. Gen. Prosper Avril. U.S. officials said loyal soldiers apparently rescued Avril as he was being driven away to be deported.
A government communique read over state-run television said that "certain officers besieged" the presidential palace "and attempted to overthrow the government."
Earlier, sources in Haiti said four military officers had ousted Avril, who seized power six months ago in the second coup in this Caribbean country in less than a year.
Avril 'Is in Control'
The communique did not explain how the plot was suppressed but said, "Lt. Gen. Prosper Avril is in control of the situation and guarantees peace in the streets and the security of life and property."
In a television address early today, Avril blamed the coup attempt on rebel soldiers "blinded by their exorbitant ambition." He provided no details but appealed to Haitians to support his leadership.
U.S. Embassy spokeswoman Susan Clyde said reports indicated the coup attempt occurred about 4 a.m. or 5 a.m. and that Avril was detained for a time.
"But it appears that when he was being taken to the airport to be deported . . . members of the presidential guard arrived at the airport and escorted him back to the palace to be president again," she said in a telephone interview.
"Our last report is that he is at the palace and is in charge again," she said, adding that the attempted coup was "totally bloodless."
Later, Radio Liberte quoted an unidentified soldier as saying that one of Avril's four sons was being held hostage. It also reported that the soldier said Port-au-Prince would be "set on fire" unless the government released one of the alleged coup leaders, identified by the soldier as Lt. Col. Himmler Rebu, commander of the Leopards Battalion commando unit. Military sources said Rebu was under military guard at the National Palace.
Loyal soldiers told journalists that Avril's wife and her mother were taken captive with Avril but released a couple of hours later. They also said that two of Avril's brothers and the interior minister, Col. Acedius St. Louis, and his son were seized by the rebels.
Avril's son, brothers and St. Louis and his son reportedly were freed after two tanks rolled into the Leopards' barracks and negotiated their release Sunday night. There were no reports of casualties.
Army Chief's Role
Initial reports had said the army commander, Maj. Gen. Herard Abraham, was among the coup leaders. But later accounts said this was not correct and that the plot collapsed when Abraham refused the rebels' offer of the presidency.
Unconfirmed reports said four army officers had planned the coup, including Gen. Guy Francois, commander of the Dessalines Barracks in Port-au-Prince, the base of the most feared unit in Haiti's 7,000-man army. The reports said the four officers had been detained, but there was no confirmation.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Dennis Harter said the situation in Haiti "remains fluid."
Harter, reading a prepared statement, praised Avril's government for taking "important steps toward a new democratic process. We believe this process must continue.
"Meanwhile, the United States government calls on Haiti's rulers scrupulously to observe human and civil rights and to cooperate fully in anti-narcotic activities," he said.
Haiti's international airport was closed and large numbers of soldiers were at the palace and on the streets, which were calm.
Gunfire Heard Before Dawn
Gunfire was heard twice near the palace before dawn, witnesses said. Several hours later, renewed gunfire broke out in the same area.
A government source said shortly after daybreak that three military officers had ousted Avril and that Abraham was put in charge of the government. The later reports said Abraham had refused the rebels' request to become president.
Abraham was foreign minister under the government of Lt. Gen. Henri Namphy, whom Avril replaced.
U.S. spokesman Clyde said: "There has not been any visible reaction from the people. The streets are very calm. People are going about their business as usual."
U.S. Urged Drug Crackdown
Richard Melton, U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for Caribbean affairs, had visited Haiti on Monday and told Avril that resumption of U.S. aid depended in part on Haiti's efforts to crack down on the narcotics trade.
On Wednesday, four top army officers accused of involvement in the drug trade were discharged.
Hubert de Ronceray, a conservative political leader, said those dismissals might have triggered the coup attempt.
The violence also came about two weeks after Avril partially restored the suspended constitution of 1987, including one provision that bars former top supporters of the Duvalier dictatorships from holding public office.
Violence Marred Voting