In Haiti, shift from disjointed rebellion to wider uprising

Aristide's political opponents are wary of offer to share power, while armed rebels reject peace plan.

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

Over the weekend, an international delegation persuaded Haiti's President Jean-Bertrand Aristide to accept a peace plan to share power with his political opponents. In exchange for staying in power, Aristide agreed to the appointment of a new prime minster and new elections.

But the political coalition opposing him is wary of Aristide's promises, and aren't expected to reply to the plan until Monday afternoon. And the armed rebels - who control Haiti's central and northern regions - say they aren't interested in the peace plan.

"We want one thing and one thing only," says Guy Philippe, a rebel commander. "Aristide has to go. We won't settle for anything less. Once he's gone we'll put down our guns, but until then, what they are saying the capital doesn't interest us."

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Indeed, the character of Haiti's rebellion appears to be changing. In the first two weeks, the uprising was mostly comprised of disjointed groups of gangs and disgruntled militia. Last week, two ex-military men (one of them Mr. Philippe) and a phalanx heavily armed former soldiers and policemen joined the hard-scrabble gang members in this dusty port town. While the gang members walk the streets here, the ex-military men and former police are preparing to widen the uprising. Local residents say the rebels are gathering in the hills near Cap-Haitien, Haiti's second largest city. At press time Sunday, residents reached by phone said the Cap-Haitien airport had just been taken over by rebel forces.

Today, two of Haiti's nine departments or provinces are without police. Rebel barricades block the country's main highway, dividing the country in two. While the police are gone, life goes on much as always with planting, harvesting, weddings and funerals.

Many of the foot soldiers in this uprising are the poorest of the poor, once staunch Aristide supporters. Hundreds of men and women have helped torch and tear down police stations or cheer when rebels show up. And people here say they are delighted to be free of what they say were corrupt local officials and police.

As the uprising in Haiti has spread its depth and breadth have revealed deep frustrations that have brought together former enemies.

Men and women once willing to give their lives for Aristide - the ex-priest overthrown in 1991 in a bloody three-year coup d'état - are marching arm in arm with the men who fomented and supported the coup. Together, they say they are carrying out what they say is Haiti's "liberation" from the man who promised much but has delivered little.

"People came from everywhere to join us," says rebellion leader Butteur Métayer of the armed men hanging out nearby.

Mr. Métayer once belonged to a gang called the Cannibal Army. Until last fall, the Army was a violently pro-Aristide motley crew of poor longshoremen. But last fall the Army turned against the president and changed their name to the Artibonite Resistance Front. Reinforced this week, they morphed into the Haitian National Revolutionary Liberation Front.

"The Artibonite is liberated now," Métayer affirmed last Thursday, while resting at the Front's headquarters after addressing an assembly of several thousand in Gonaives main square. From port director and head of the Front, Butteur now has the self-bestowed title of "provisional president."

Last week, he was wearing a white suit with epaulets as he hung out at the Front's makeshift headquarters, located in his sister's house. It's one of the few two-story structures in the seaside slum of Raboteau. Heavily armed former soldiers were bustling around the grimy back yard.

"Now we are going to take the rest of Haiti," says Métayer, calmly.

A week ago, Métayer's thugs were joined by the leader of the infamous paramilitary force which murdered hundreds during the coup and by soldiers from the army he disbanded after he returned to office in 1994.

The Front's "Commander in Chief" is the smiling, baby-faced Philippe. Once a soldier, he later joined Haiti's new police force, but Aristide soon accused him of drug-dealing and coup-plotting. Claiming innocence, he fled to the Dominican Republic. Louis Jodel Chamblain, the "Commandante," is leading the Front's military operations. Also a former soldier, Chamblain is more infamous for the year he spent at the head of the Front for Hai-tian Advancement and Progress (FRAPH), a brutal paramilitary group accused by the Haitian justice system, as well many local and international rights groups, of the murders of hundreds.

According to a 1996 UN Human Rights Commission, FRAPH also had close ties to the CIA, which paid the salary of at least one leader - Emmanuel "Toto" Constant - and also allegedly supplied the thugs with weapons. The CIA has denied the charges.

Last week, Chamblain resurfaced and was embracing the men he used to chase down, men like Métayer and Émile Déré, a recent recruit.

"FRAPH almost took me out during the coup," says Mr. Déré, a tall 34-year-old dressed in military fatigues. "I was a student. We were all fighting for Aristide's return then."

When Aristide was restored to office by a US military intervention, Déré joined the police force. But he became disillusioned. He was trained for judicial investigation, but found himself being sidelined. More and more, the good cops had to look over their shoulders, he says. Déré went AWOL in December and joined his cousin in the Dominican Republic. He says he wants a country with a clean police force and other democratic institutions.

"Now I'm in the same army with FRAPH people and ex-soldiers," Déré says with irony.

Still, Déré says he is not 100 percent comfortable with Chamblain's background.

"But we aren't here to judge," he says. "For now, we both have the same objective: get rid of Aristide. After we accomplish that he should face justice."

The former police and soldiers under Chamblain's command haven't been seen in Gonaives for two days. People in the mountain town near the rebels' base camp say the rebels passed through recently. But asked about their movements, one 21-year army veteran who is now in charge of the St. Michel de l'Atalaye police station said: "We're in the woods. We're in the mountains. We're just waiting for the right moment to take Cap-Haïtien."

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