Chaos strikes Haiti’s capital

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti – Haiti’s capital descended into widespread lawlessness Friday, with armed gangs loyal to President Jean-Bertrand Aristide executing at least two suspected rebel collaborators in public, stealing vehicles at gunpoint and shooting at motorists trying to drive through streets blocked by flaming barricades.

As U.S. diplomats here blamed Aristide for the violence, President Bush underscored his administration’s view that Haiti’s president should consider resigning for his nation’s good. The U.S. military readied for possible action and said the Coast Guard had this week repatriated some 531 Haitians fleeing the chaos on the Caribbean island. A Pentagon spokeswoman would not confirm reports that the United States is considering dispatching three Navy ships with a Marine force to the coast off Haiti.

Diplomats discussed possible arrangements for a governmental succession based on the Haitian constitution, a reflection of the depth of Aristide’s woes. Rebels who already control more than half of Haiti Friday captured towns in the southern part of the country for the first time as they encircled Port-au-Prince.

The U.S. Embassy here urged rebels to back down but also appealed to Aristide to order armed gangs loyal to him to cease terrorizing people in the capital.

“The United States government is dismayed to report that pro-government popular organizations in Port-au-Prince have begun to burn, pillage and kill. Even a hospital is apparently under attack at this moment,” the embassy said in a statement. “The armed gangs that are spreading terror and attacking citizens and the general population are acting in the name of Jean-Bertrand Aristide.”

Aristide stood defiant, telling CNN in a telephone interview that he had a “responsibility to do what is right” against the uprising. To him, that meant defending the country against a three-week-old armed revolt by former loyalists who have turned on him and been joined by leaders of the disbanded Haitian army who have returned from exile in the neighboring Dominican Republic.

Rebel leader Guy Philippe, who had vowed for days to march on the capital and capture Aristide unless the president resigned, said in Cap-Haitien that he had changed strategy and would instead use his gunmen to cut off the capital from food and fuel deliveries. If true, the standoff could drag on for days and possibly weeks.

“We’re going to block Port-au-Prince totally,” said Philippe, whose pledge to take the capital by Sunday sparked revenge attacks by pro-Aristide gangs.

Philippe, a former Cap-Haitien police chief who was fired in 2000 after being suspected of plotting a coup against Aristide, has pledged to hand over power to a civilian authority if his armed revolt is successful. But so far, there is no indication who would succeed Aristide – if he departs.

In Paris, a delegation of Haitian government officials met with French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin who emphasized afterward that the choice whether to leave was Aristide’s.

De Villepin said Aristide should not expect an international force to enter Haiti to protect him before a political deal is reached. Diplomats close to the negotiations said they hoped the visit would help persuade Aristide that he does not have international support, and should resign.

If Aristide resigns, under the Haitian constitution power would be handed to the chief justice of the Haitian Supreme court, Boniface Alexandre.

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