Sun, Nov 16, 2003 - Page 6 News List

Astride supporters clash with protest

AP , PORT-AU-PRINCE, HAITI

A Haitian policeman, center, shields students during an anti-government protest in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on Friday. Violent protests have rocked the Caribbean nation for weeks.

PHOTO: AFP

Haitian riot police fired stinging tear gas at thousands of rock-throwing protesters on Friday as a civil demonstration was overpowered by throngs of Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide's supporters.

Demonstrators scattered as tear gas canisters fell, and shots rang out in the crowd. No one was reported wounded. At least two people were injured and police arrested 30.

Civic groups had planned the protest to urge social change. But more than 8,000 Aristide partisans fanned out in the capital and corralled them into a tiny section of Port-au-Prince's gritty streets.

Police separated the groups and fired tear gas when some protesters lobbed rocks at each other.

"We want a change and we want a better tomorrow, but we also want to keep Aristide," said Jean Robert, 36, waving a picture of Haiti's embattled leader.

Tension has grown as Aristide struggles to break an impasse with an opposition coalition that is refusing to participate in elections unless he steps down. Countries including the US are refusing aid to Haiti's government until Aristide holds elections to repair flawed balloting in May 2000 legislative elections.

A coalition civic groups is also demanding widespread changes, including freedom of assembly.

Before the demonstration could even begin, dozens of the civil leaders -- including many vocal critics of Aristide -- were arrested when police stopped a trailer carrying a stage for the protest, said Andy Apaid, a coalition coordinator.

"Aristide made a choice today, a choice against democracy, and society must draw the conclusions," Apaid said.

He said police found three guns on the trailer and arrested the leaders for allegedly keeping weapons illegally. But Apaid said they had permits for the guns and that the charges were a pretext to detain the group.

Police, who have been criticized in the past for preventing anti-government protests, were vigilant on Friday in guarding both camps of protesters. Still, many civil leaders were kept from the demonstration during exhaustive vehicle searches.

"The government has deliberately obstructed our right to assemble," said Lyonel Trouillot, a novelist and playwright.

Despite losing pockets of support, Aristide has maintained popularity in Port-au-Prince, where the former slum priest rose to power. Many of his supporters criticize the opposition and the civil groups for being from Haiti's "light-skinned" and privileged upper class.

The civil groups, however, represent 184 organizations.

"They have done nothing for the people. That's why we blocked them," said Yves Derisine, 39, a plumber and Aristide supporter. "The only right they have to speak is the right to speak for the majority."

The crowd chanted "Aristide for another five years," holding photos of the president and Haitian flags.

Aristide has said he intends to served out his term, which ends in 2006, and has defended his government, saying it has made efforts toward security and progress despite many obstacles.

A series of anti-government demonstrations have been staged over the past two months to criticize deepening poverty and what protesters say is the government's failure to ensure security.

Clashes during those protests have left more than a dozen dead and scores wounded.

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