PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Rudderless Haiti suffered more bloodshed Sunday as attempts to name a provisional president to replace ousted military ruler Lt. Gen. Prosper Avril bogged down. Avril's opponents vowed to stage a paralyzing general strike until he leaves the country.
At least 20 people, including a police major, were killed by gunfire in the 24 hours after Avril's resignation Saturday afternoon, according to hospital reports and local radio news broadcasts.
In one incident, uniformed men reportedly mowed down five pedestrians in a drive-by massacre, then raced away with the bodies, according to eyewitnesses interviewed by radio stations. In another, a police officer summarily shot and killed a passer-by whom he suspected of killing police Maj. Renaud Simbert minutes before, witnesses said.
Avril has remained out of sight since leaving the presidential palace at about 3 p.m. Saturday, and there was no sign of life at his luxurious hillside mansion in suburban Port-au-Prince. But both diplomatic and political sources said he is still in the country. Opposition political leaders demanded that he leave Haiti immediately and vowed at a press conference to begin a general strike today that will continue until he's gone.
A senior Western diplomat said Avril's continued presence in Haiti "represents a danger" to the forces that unseated him.
Meanwhile, the urgent search for a temporary successor to lead the country to democratic elections within the next six months was stalled by a constitutional standoff between political leaders and Haiti's 12 Supreme Court justices.
At the same time, the army chief of staff, Maj. Gen. Herard Abraham, 49, who received a mandate when Avril stepped down to install a provisional civilian government within 72 hours, declined to function even briefly as president, leaving the jittery country effectively ungoverned.
In a meeting with the coalition of 12 political parties that, after a week of bloody, nationwide protests, forced Avril's resignation, Abraham said that he had already moved Avril's powerful Presidential Guard out of the palace and had its troops under control. This neutralized the main threat that Avril partisans might regain power. Both the palace and the nearby armed forces headquarters building in downtown Port-au-Prince appeared to be only lightly guarded as a result of Abraham's move.
The general also told the group that he would guarantee their security and be helpful as they seek a provisional president but that he could not act as head of government, said Father Antoine Adrien, a Roman Catholic priest acting as spokesman for the coalition.
"There is extreme danger that if things are stalled, the people are going to become more confused and desperate," said Marc Bazin, another member of the coalition. He expressed fear that elements of the army and armed thugs of the old Duvalier regime might be tempted to move into the political vacuum.
Bazin and other coalition members said the sticking point in the quest for a temporary president was their demand before Avril stepped down that he turn the presidency over to the vice chief justice or one of the next-ranking justices of the Haitian Supreme Court. But under Haiti's 1987 constitution, the designated legal successor in such a case would be the court's chief justice--Avril cronie Gilbert Austin, who is unacceptable to the political and civic leaders who forced Avril's ouster.
"The trouble with Austin is that he now wants the job badly," said Bazin, "and he's gotten the other justices to sign a paper saying they will stick to the hierarchical line of succession in the constitution."
The coalition of 12 met throughout the day and evening Sunday trying to resolve the crisis and at nightfall sent a delegation to the court in search of a justice willing to accept the presidency, said Leopold Berlanger, an adviser to the group. "If no one accepts, then we will work on a solution outside the court," he said.
Bazin, himself a leading presidential candidate if and when elections are held, said the group might turn next to the Haiti Bar Assn. for a candidate.
When asked why the coalition did not insist on Avril's immediate departure after his resignation, a diplomat said, "They didn't want the appearance of another Haitian head of government chased out of the country two steps ahead of a mob." But, when faced with an outpouring of public disgust that Avril is still in Haiti and not under arrest, coalition leaders joined the chorus of those seeking his immediate departure. "We're not talking about exile," said Father Adrien, "we're talking about sending away a public hazard."