PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Moving forcefully to end a weeklong military mutiny, troops loyal to Haitian leader Lt. Gen. Prosper Avril stormed the barracks of the largest rebel unit late Friday.
At least some of the rebel soldiers of the Dessalines Barracks, which abuts Haiti's presidential palace in downtown Port-au-Prince, reportedly surrendered to an attacking force of the loyal Presidential Guard after more than two hours of intense artillery and machine-gun fire.
Shortly before midnight, another Presidential Guard detachment was reported racing toward the hilltop town of Petionville to try to subdue the 400-strong Leopard Battalion, a smaller armed rebel unit whose former commander led an unsuccessful \o7 coup d'etat \f7 against Avril last Sunday.
A number of foreign diplomats and civilians who monitored military radio channels during the assault said it was unclear late Friday whether all or only some of the Dessalines Battalion dissidents had surrendered. One diplomat said at least some die-hard mutineers were holding out in the barracks, but that there had been a cease-fire to sort out the confusion of identically uniformed rebel and loyalist soldiers shooting at each other.
There were no confirmed reports of casualties, but the intensity of the gunfire that shook the capital city from 7:40 p.m. until almost 10 p.m. prompted a European envoy to say "there must have been some."
Another diplomat said that at least some civilians who live in the neighborhood of the palace and the adjoining barracks had been hit by stray artillery shells. "It was a disaster," he said. Late in the evening, the state-owned radio station issued an appeal from Haiti's Red Cross for all available ambulances to come to the area.
The heavy shelling, which echoed throughout the city, apparently blew a large enough passage in the high concrete wall that divides the palace from the barracks to open the way for several armored vehicles and soldiers of the Presidential Guards to storm the rebel stronghold, according to a woman who observed the action.
She said one of the four-wheeled armored cars appeared to have been put out of commission by the rebels' defensive fire.
'Government Is in Control'
An unidentified man who answered the palace telephone said late in the evening that "the government is in control of the situation." He identified himself only as a civilian aide to the president.
Another source who asked to remain anonymous said Avril had called for a camera crew from the National Television station to come to the palace and film a presidential address for broadcast sometime during the night. The station has been off the air since Thursday evening, when it was fired on by soldiers from the Leopard Battalion. The government said two Leopards were killed in the station attack, but a spokesmen for the rebel army unit said Friday morning that 12 Leopards died.
Although the fighting appeared to be stalled early today, diplomats cautioned that it was not ended because the main force of the Leopard Battalion had not been subdued and there were believed still to be some Dessalines holdouts in the downtown barracks.
One wandering Dessalines private appeared with his automatic rifle at the Holiday Inn Hotel, about 500 yards from the fighting, where about a dozen foreign journalists sheltered during the fighting.
"They are just trying to intimidate the Dessalines," he said with bravado. "It would be impossible for them to take us without killing all the Dessalines in the barracks."
Asked why he had not joined his comrades in defense of the rebel barracks, he smiled ruefully and said, "If you're a soldier, when you put your head in the streets you could get killed. When the shooting stops, I'll go."
Haiti's week of military turmoil began Sunday when Lt. Col. Himmler Rebu, then commander of the Leopards, joined two colonels, Philippe Biamby of the Presidential Guard and Leonce Qualo of Army Headquarters, in an attempt to overthrow Avril.
Avril, who was installed as president during a coup by enlisted men last September, escaped with the help of another Leopards officer after spending hours under arrest with his wife and other relatives, including his 14-year-old son and 88-year-old mother-in-law.
When Avril exiled the three coup plotters to the United States the next day and dismissed seven others, the Dessalines and Leopards units rebelled and demanded that he resign, setting off renewed turmoil.