For eight days now, Haiti's fourth-largest city has been controlled by an armed rebel gang whose barricades on the national highway have cut the country in two. The port city echoes with automatic weapons fire, and dark smoke billows from burning car hulks blocking the streets. As many as 50 people have been killed, and the police have abandoned more than a dozen Haitian cities and towns as the violence spreads.
But interviews with the rebels and opposition politicians indicate that this is not yet an organized national insurrection. Rather, this island nation is seared by pockets of spontaneous violence fueled by anger and revenge - carried out by both anti- and pro-government militia.
"What's happening does not have the character of a national rebellion" says Himmler Rebu, a former Army colonel and critic of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. But he is concerned that the violence will spread. "People are frustrated all over the country. If Aristide's departure is not well-prepared, there could be chaos."
Aristide says that he won't leave before his term ends in 2006: "We cannot continue to move from one coup d'état to another."
Haiti has witnessed more than 30 coups in the 200 years since independence. In 1991, Aristide was ousted within months of being the nation's first freely elected president. Three years later, President Clinton sent 20,000 US troops into Haiti to restore Aristide to power and stop an exodus of boat people arriving on Florida's shores. On Tuesday, the State Department called on US citizens to leave the country because "the Haitian government has failed to maintain order in Port-au-Prince or in other cities." Washington has backed Aristide, but that support appears to be wavering.
Aristide critics here say the unrest is fueled by the government's tolerance of pro-government gangs, drug-running, and police repression and extortion. A four-year stand-off between Aristide's government and opposition political parties over contested parliamentary races in 2000 degenerated into a full-fledged national opposition movement late last year as the economy faltered, protest marches gathered steam, and rights abuses rose.
Aristide continues to call for elections to resolve the crisis, but the opposition - citing security and corruption concerns - claims elections are impossible under his watch. While Washington sat this crisis out, Haiti's papal nuncio, the Organization of American States (OAS) and most recently the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) have all tried - without success to date - to negotiate a solution.
In recent days, some of the anger is coming from former Aristide backers. "It would be more accurate to call it a rebellion inside Aristide's camp," says Mr. Rebu, the former Army colonel.
Indeed, the only rebel force - the Artibonite Resistance Front, which controls Gonaives - was until recently a pro- government armed gang the National Palace tolerated for years.
"We supported Aristide once. He was our savior. But he betrayed us. We won't put down our arms until he goes," says Ferdinand Wilfort, the front's self-declared "Chief of Police" for Gonaives.
While the armed Gonaives rebels are calling for Aristide's resignation, they are not connected to the political opposition, its leaders contend.
But that hasn't stopped Aristide's traditional enemies - old-time supporters of the 29-year Duvalier dictatorship and members of the brutal Haitian Army he disbanded in 1995 - from taking advantage of the population's dashed hopes.
"This government specializes in lying," says Evans Paul, mayor of Port-au-Prince during Aristide's first term (1991-1995) and frequent victim of Army repression during the 1990s when he and Aristide were allies. Now Paul and his party are in the Democratic Platform, a coalition of parties; unions; and peasant, civic, and business groups which has so far only held marches and called for civil disobedience.
"A lot of people say we should take up arms, but we don't think violence can solve Haiti's crisis. If there are others opposed to Aristide who chose the same methods as his government - guns - we can't do anything about that," Paul says.
The government says the rebels in Gonaives are the "armed branch" of Haiti's political opposition movement. "They have no other objective than the political and social destabilization of the country," said Minister of the Interior Jocelerme Privert this week. "They have guns much bigger than the police, so officers are obliged to flee their posts."
The Artibonite Resistance Front used to be a small group of pro-government toughs from the poor seaside neighborhood of Raboteau. Run by local strongman Amiot Métayer, the so-called "Cannibal Army" for three years terrorized antigovernment protesters and those deemed disloyal to Aristide.
But criticism of Métayer and his gang's brutality from local rights groups, Washington, and the Organization of American States became an open embarrassment to Port-au-Prince. Aristide promised diplomats that Métayer would be reined in. Last fall Métayer was found murdered. His followers assumed the National Palace had ordered it, and turned on the president, changing their name to the Front.
On Feb. 5, with help from about a dozen ex-soldiers, the Artibonite Resistance Front took over the Gonaives police station after a bloody three-hour gun battle. Police attempted to retake the city two days later and were brutally repelled.
In the days that followed, police abandoned or were chased out of more than a dozen towns around the country.
But outside Gonaives, the only organized armed rebellion occurred in the port town of St. Marc. The antigovernment Consequent Militants of St. Marc, which formerly only organized peaceful demonstrations, attacked the police station, chased officers away and then torched it.
Police and heavily armed pro-government militia regained control of St. Marc late Wednesday. "Only the Aristide people are allowed to carry guns. They can do whatever they want. Kill RAMICOS members, terrorize us," says carpenter Mario Antoine reached by phone as gunshots rang out in the background. He and other workers at a coffin-building shop on the town's main street said they wanted Aristide and his armed supporters out of power. "That's they only way we'll get peace," he says.
In Haiti's second-largest city, Cap- Haïtien, the unrest is mostly initiated by pro-government toughs who have built barricades, torched houses of suspected government critics, and chased journalists, say residents reached by phone.
Back in Gonaives, a city of some 200,000 inhabitants and the birthplace of Haiti's independence 200 years ago, barricades manned by boys toting sawed off shotguns, M-1s, and tire irons block all traffic to and from the city, thus cutting Haiti in two.
"We are in the ones in charge of security here now," affirms "Police chief" Wilfort Wednesday as onlookers gawked at his weaponry.
Wilfort, known as "Ti" or "Little" Will, wears his hair in corn-row braids and sports mirror sunglasses and a Haitian government "Special Agent Secret Service" badge he says he found. He and four men armed to the teeth were dressed in a collection of Haitian police and US army surplus clothing and bullet-proof vests. Theirs was one of only a few cars on the street - a brand-new SUV. The car was stolen from police during the police attack on Feb. 7.
"We won't tolerate thieves or disorder," he says. "The police didn't do this. Instead, they were the ones extorting and torturing us."
Haiti's National Police force, a whose numbers have trickled down from 7,000 to around about 4,000, is frequently criticized for torture and summary executions, corruption and drug-running.
Asked how many members - or officers, since they have given themselves ranks like commander and captain - the motley collection of Front fighters has, one says 100, another 150.
But when asked if the Front was going to help their brothers in arms down in St. Marc, or take their struggle to other cities and towns, on Wednesday 22-year-old Commander St. Juste Adeclat merely says, "We're thinking about it."
1986 - Widespread protests against "Baby Doc" Duvalier lead the US to arrange for his exile from Haiti.
1990 - Jean Bertrand Aristide becomes Haiti's first democratically elected president.
1991 - A coup d'état ousts President Aristide. The international community declares an embargo on Haiti.
1994 - A UN force begins a military intervention, and 20,000 US troops oversee Aristide's peaceful return to power.
1995 - René Préval is elected president.
1999 - President Préval dissolves the parliament and starts ruling by decree.
2000 - Jean Bertrand Aristide is reelected president amid allegations of election fraud.
2004 - Protests against Aristide's rule escalate, and government opponents seize control of St. Marc and Gonaives.
Source: BBC, Haiti Embassy in US