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THE WORLD

Thousands Protest Aristide Ouster

Haitians march on the U.S. Embassy, venting their anger over their president's departure and demanding his return from exile.

March 06, 2004|Carol J. Williams | Times Staff Writer

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — In the boldest display of their anger since President Jean-Bertrand Aristide departed Sunday, thousands of Aristide supporters marched on the U.S. Embassy on Friday to demand his return and accuse the U.S. and French governments of spiriting away their leader.

"Bush is a terrorist!" chanted the swarm of young men who poured out of seaside slums to vent their wrath. Protesters wearing T-shirts bearing the former priest's image vowed to continue to demonstrate until Aristide returns from the Central African Republic.

Aristide left Haiti early Sunday on a U.S.-chartered flight, after an all-night arm-twisting session by foreign diplomats to persuade him to leave. Aristide, who became Haiti's first democratically elected president in 1990, has claimed he was forced out by the United States in what he called a "modern kidnapping." U.S. officials have said that, fearing a bloodbath between advancing rebel forces and armed street gangs loyal to Aristide, they strongly suggested that he resign for the good of the country.

Several dozen U.S. Marines who are part of a 2,000-strong multinational force stood by Friday but made no move to disperse the crowd. Several shots were fired during the protest, but it was unclear whether the embassy defenders fired any of the shots.

Commerce has slowly resumed in Port-au-Prince in the last two days, although schools remained closed and roving gangs continued to pillage businesses owned by those who fought for years for Aristide's ouster. Smoke billowed out of a food-processing plant in the capital's industrial park, prompting fears of an explosion at a neighboring oxygen-bottling enterprise -- the country's only producer of hospital respiratory supplies.

The armed gangs have even targeted humanitarian aid agencies. A vehicle was stolen at gunpoint from a team sent by Food for the Poor, a Florida-based religious charity, to assess losses from shipping containers looted at the port this week. The robbers, whom driver Yvon Bulot described as three pro-Aristide thugs, demanded $5,000 for the return of the four-wheel-drive vehicle.

A seven-member committee of Haitian leaders was selected Friday to appoint a new prime minister -- possibly as early as this weekend -- and establish an interim government for the troubled nation.

Those scrambling to put together the government say speed is crucial. Remnants of Aristide's Lavalas Party continue to incite armed loyalists to ransack and burn opposition businesses while there is neither a reliable police force nor a functioning government.

Opposition leaders have accused lame-duck Prime Minister Yvon Neptune, an Aristide ally, of encouraging the armed slum gangs to rampage. After Neptune used state-run radio Tuesday night to suggest that Aristide supporters stand firm in their opposition to a leadership change, armed rebels and militant students broke into and looted the broadcast headquarters.

There also have been what appear to be reprisal killings of pro-Aristide militants, blamed on armed rebels who arrived Tuesday in the capital after laying siege to the northern half of the country and pressuring Aristide to leave.

Rebel leader Guy Philippe, who had promised two days earlier to disarm his men and depart, was still in Port-au-Prince on Friday, although he was keeping a low profile. One senior aide in his ragtag band of gunmen and wanted criminals, former Ambassador to the Dominican Republic Paul Arcelin, said the rebels would hold on to their weapons until Aristide's gangs were disarmed.

The head of the U.S. military's Southern Command toured his troops here Friday and dispatched assessment teams to two troubled cities in the north, Cap Haitien and Gonaives.

"There's a lot more to Haiti than Port-au-Prince," said Gen. James T. Hill, adding that forces would be deployed to the countryside as the mission, currently also including French, Canadian and Chilean troops, expands to an expected 5,000.

Citing the deployment of Marines on the day Aristide departed, Hill said he "could not be more pleased with the way the operation unfolded.... It has, we believe, stopped the major bloodbath that could have occurred if we had not been here."

Hill said that troops of the multinational force had already begun joint patrols with Haitian police and that those operations would be stepped up as more foreign troops arrived. Marines in armored vehicles were seen sweeping looters out of the port Friday afternoon, handcuffing and escorting them out of the ravaged freight yards.

A Tripartite Commission was named Wednesday to launch the interim government-building process. It includes a Cabinet minister formerly aligned with Aristide, Minister for Emigre Affairs Leslie Voltaire, as well as former Sen. Paul Denis of the opposition Democratic Platform and a U.N. mediator, Adama Guindo.

On Friday, the commission named a seven-member Council of Sages. Supreme Court Chief Justice Boniface Alexandre was sworn in as interim president, a figurehead position, three hours after Aristide left Sunday. He will work with the council of civilian leaders who will be ineligible to run in the elections they are to organize. The council has been envisioned as a consultative body that will choose the prime minister and a new Cabinet, then advise the executive branch in the absence of a legislature.

Elections to seat a president and National Assembly are expected no sooner than 18 months from now.

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