Wed, Dec 24, 2003 - Page 6 News List

Gunmen open fire on Haitian demonstrators

DISCONTENT A member of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide's party joined 10,000 protestors on Monday to criticize the government's barbarism

AP , PORT-AU-PRINCE, HAITI

An unidentified demonstrator runs as police take position against a group of armed men that opened fire in Port au Prince, Haiti, on Monday. Thousands of anti-government demonstrators marched calling for President Jean-Bertrand Aristide's resignation.

PHOTO: AP

An armed gang opened fire on thousands of anti-government protesters on Monday during a clash that killed one man and left Presi-dent Jean-Bertrand Aristide facing a groundswell of discontent.

The gunmen were in a truck when they shot at the crowd. Riot police returned fire. It was not immediately clear who shot the man or whether he was an anti-government demonstrator, Aristide partisan or bystander.

The attack came a day after US Ambassador James Foley signed a communique exhorting the police to protect the demonstrators against "armed gangs."

Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, has been in turmoil since Aristide's Lavalas Family party dominated the flawed 2000 elections. Since mid-Septem-ber, at least 23 people have been killed during anti-government demonstrations around the country.

Monday's demonstration was one of the largest yet in the capital, beginning with 200 and swelling to 10,000 people. Some waved white handkerchiefs to symbolize peace while others held red cards used in soccer to eject players in a call for Aristide to step down.

"We need a change," said Paul Destin, 30. "We're losing our freedom of speech and street thugs are terrorizing the people. This has got to stop."

Aristide, who became the Caribbean country's first freely elected president in a landslide, has been struggling to maintain support.

In recent weeks, Environment Minister Webster Pierre, Education Minister Marie-Carmel Paule Austin and Tourism Minister Martine Deverson resigned amid increasing violence. The vice president of an interim electoral council also resigned amid rising tensions.

Many have alleged the government has tried to repress anti-government demonstrations by using the police to break them up, or by allowing Aristide supporters to use strong-arm tactics against opponents.

Senator Pierre Soncon Prince, who belongs to Aristide's party, was a passive participant in Monday's rally.

"I have not resigned from the party, but I am absolutely in disagreement with its barbaric behavior," Prince said.

Still, Aristide maintains popularity with the masses who elected the former priest on promises he made to the poor.

"I love Aristide," said seamstress Daphne Saint-Claire, 20, as she watched the protest on Monday. "If these people oust him, things will get worse, not better. Aristide is my president."

Aristide was ousted in a 1991 coup and restored to power in a 1994 US occupation. He stepped down in 1996 due to a term limit and was re-elected in 2000.

Aristide has refused opposition calls to step down, saying he will serve out his term until 2006.

In the meantime, the terms of most members of the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies are set to expire on Jan. 12. Aristide will be forced to rule by decree if no solution is reached by then.

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