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Haitian Prime Minister Praises Rebels

The leader asks for a moment of silence for all 'who fell fighting against the dictatorship.'

March 21, 2004|From Associated Press

GONAIVES, Haiti — Sharing a platform with rebel leaders, Haiti's interim prime minister Saturday praised the gunmen who began the uprising that chased President Jean-Bertrand Aristide from power and even paid tribute to an assassinated gangster.

About 3,000 people cheered and clapped at Prime Minister Gerard Latortue's first rally in his hometown, Gonaives, where Haiti's independence was declared 200 years ago and where its recent rebellion began.

"I ask you for a moment of silence for all the people who fell fighting against the dictatorship, and especially for Amiot Metayer," Latortue said as the crowd went wild. Metayer was the leader of the Cannibal Army street gang, and his death sparked the rebellion.

Rebel leaders who still run Haiti's fourth-largest city sat on a platform alongside Latortue, Organization of American States representative David Lee, recently installed interim Cabinet ministers Bernard Gousse and retired Gen. Herard Abraham, and new Haitian Police Chief Leon Charles.

Rebel leader Wynter Etienne, self-declared mayor of Gonaives, welcomed Latortue and told the crowd that his fighters would surrender their weapons when a police presence was restored in the city and its suburbs, which had about 200,000 people before the uprising erupted Feb. 5.

Latortue paid tribute to Metayer and those killed in the fighting to oust Aristide. More than 300 people died -- dozens of them police who failed to overcome the rebels.

Metayer's Cannibal Army gang ran the docks at Gonaives and was said to control drug trafficking through the port. The gang also was believed to have been armed by Aristide to terrorize his opponents.

Aristide finally had Metayer arrested last year after months of pressure from the OAS, which demanded he be tried for allegedly burning homes of opponents. Gang members rammed a tractor into the prison to free him in September, and Metayer's bullet-riddled and mutilated body was found days later.

"They took out his eyes. They took out his heart," Latortue said of Metayer.

Metayer's brother, Buter, assumed leadership of the gang; he said Aristide ordered his brother's killing to keep him from publicizing damaging information about Aristide.

Lee said Latortue's visit symbolized "a return of authority." But Charles acknowledged that the city would continue to be run by rebels until a police presence was reestablished.

About 150 French Legionnaires rolled into Gonaives on Friday. On Saturday, they remained behind State University walls, where they set up camp. An additional 200 French troops went to Cap Haitien.

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