Tue, Mar 09, 2004 - Page 6 News List

Haitian `victory march' attacked

AFTERSHOCK At least five people died when unknown gunmen sprayed gunfire into a crowd of thousands of revelers on Sunday


French soldiers escort thousands of opponents of former Haitian president Jean-Bertrand Aristide in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on Sunday.


US Marines are investigating the attack on thousands of people celebrating the flight of ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide that killed at least five people, including a foreign journalist, and led Marines to return fire on the gunmen.

A few doctors with not enough medication or staff struggled yesterday to treat dozens of injured from the protest the day before, despite the dramatic arrival of a French Air Force helicopter that landed on a major road to deliver emergency supplies to Port-au-Prince's main private hospital.

It was the first armed action by US forces sent a week ago to stabilize Haiti, and the worst attack since Aristide fled on Feb. 29.

Aristide, in a telephone conversation aired yesterday on French radio, called on his countrymen to peacefully resist the "unacceptable occupation" of Haiti and said he remains the nation's president.

"The Haitian people resist and must continue to finalize a peaceful resistance to face down this unacceptable occupation that follows this political kidnapping, which is also unacceptable," said Aristide, who resigned and fled to the Central Africa Republic under pressure from rebels who overran the country in a month-long insurgency, as well as from the US and France.

RTL radio, which aired the comments, said that Aristide was speaking not in an interview but in a telephone conversation with a friend. He agreed to allow the conversation to be aired, according to RTL. The radio station didn't say when the conversation took place.

Sunday's protest was a test of Haiti's shaky democracy in the aftershock of Aristide's flight and of newly arrived US and French peacekeepers.

In what protesters called a "victory march," scores people marched in Port-au-Prince's Petionville suburb, with Haitian police in the lead and a convoy of US Marines in five Humvees mounted with machine guns and a tear gas launcher along with two truckloads of French legionnaires in the tail.

"Try Aristide! Jail Aristide!" protesters yelled, demanding he stand trial for alleged corruption and killings committed by his militant supporters.

As the number of protesters swelled to thousands, the peacekeepers got hemmed in.

Aristide supporters said they canceled a march planned for Sunday because peacekeepers had not promised the same level of security they gave their opponents. A pro-Aristide rally was instead planned for yesterday.

Gunfire erupted when marchers converged on the central Champs de Mars plaza. Many witnesses said they saw Aristide militants start the shooting.

US Major Richard Crusan said three Marines fired in the direction of the attack.

"We are unaware that any action was taken to other reports of shooting. We are still reviewing that information," he said.

Among five people killed were Spanish television correspondent Ricardo Ortega. Dozens were injured, including a US photographer, Michael Laughlin, 37.

Many of Sunday's victims were shot with high-velocity bullets from weapons like M-16s and M-14s, orthopedic surgeon Ronald Georges said.

Wailing victims flooded the Canape Vert hospital where he works, and blood covered the floors of the two operating rooms.

When the French helicopter landed, in a traffic jam on a major road, the two men delivering emergency supplies were stopped at the hospital's locked gates.

Two weeks ago, when the hospital was treating opposition protesters attacked by Aristide militants after another demonstration, Aristide loyalists had stormed the hospital, outraging human rights activists.

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