Mon, Feb 21, 2005 - Page 7 News List

Haitian gang frees scores of prisoners

JAIL BREAK Armed men raided a prison and let loose over 300 prisoners, including two former government ministers, in what police say was a coordinated action


An armed gang stormed Haiti's main prison and freed hundreds of prisoners including two jailed former government ministers in a bid to release drug traffickers, a Haitian government source said, while police announced that a number of detainees had already been recaptured.

According to initial investigations the strike, which freed a total of 356 detainees and left a prison guard dead, "was carried out by a group trying to release prisoners for money," according to the source, a member of the entourage of interim President Boniface Alexandre.

Yvon Neptune et Jocelerme Privert, former prime minister and interior minister in the regime of ex-president Jean Bertrand Aristide, took advantage of the chaos to escape from the national penitentiary, along with more than 350 other prisoners, the source said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

But the two were subsequently recaptured after calling several embassies to request political asylum, enabling police to trace them, the official said.

The former ministers are now back in the prison, tightly guarded by Haitian police and UN peacekeepers, the source said.

In total, 356 detainees escaped when the prison was invaded by armed men Saturday afternoon. Police had recaptured "a certain number," a police spokeswoman said, but she did not specify how many. A prison guard was killed and three were wounded during the mass escape.

The assailants penetrated the facility while visiting family members were delivering food to inmates, police spokeswoman Gessy Coicou said.

Witnesses said intense shooting erupted after three vehicles approached the front of the prison at about 3:30pm. The operation appeared to be well-organized, and coordinated from inside the prison.

"It was an operation mounted from both the inside and outside," a guard said.

The prison, located in the Haitian capital Port-au-Prince, held 1,422 inmates prior to the escape, human rights official Kettly Julien said.

Aristide fled Haiti on Feb. 29 last year amid an armed uprising and street protests against his rule. He now lives in exile in South Africa.

He was replaced by a US and French-backed interim government led by president Boniface Alexandre and prime minister Gerard Latortue.

A UN peacekeeping force was sent to Haiti last year after Aristide departed but violence between his supporters and the current government continues to be a problem.

Haiti's National Coalition for Human Rights said last week that 403 people -- 384 civilians and 19 police officers -- had been shot dead in Port-au-Prince since Sept. 30, when armed Aristide supporters launched an operation to try to return him to power.

Privert was arrested in April and Neptune in June after authorities blamed them for a wave of crime and violence by Aristide supporters. Neptune had called on Aristide supporters to mobilize for a future struggle, and Privert is blamed for a series of killings of Aristide opponents in the town of Saint Marc a year ago as part of a campaign of intimidation.

Latortue said in November that his government would also seek the extradition of Aristide on charges that he plundered state coffers and inspired political murders in the impoverished Caribbean nation.

The populist former priest become Haiti's most widely supported democratically elected leader in 1990, only to be toppled in a military coup the following year.

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