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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 Jane ReganContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / February 23, 2004


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.

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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."

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."