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Aristide flees, riots erupt
Embattled Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide resigned and flew into exile early Sunday as gunfire and looting engulfed the capital. An advance guard of U.S. Marines arrived late in the evening, prepared to help restore order.
Once widely popular but facing increasing pressure from rebels and the international community, Aristide left the country just after dawn on a jet supplied by the Pentagon. The little-known head of Haiti's supreme court took over the government as dark plumes of smoke rose from the city center and gun battles raged between police and armed gangs.
By nightfall, a curfew was imposed, and police controlled the area around the gleaming National Palace and patrolled empty, trash-strewn streets in pickup trucks and SUVs. Gunshot victims, including a boy hit in the stomach, arrived at the city's largest hospital in white Red Cross vehicles.
President Bush, whose administration backed away from Aristide in recent days, ordered a contingent of Marines to serve as the vanguard of an interim international force the United Nations hurriedly assembled. The first Marines, fewer than 100, flew in late Sunday and were expected to be reinforced in coming days by more Marines and troops from France, Canada and several Caribbean nations, officials said.
"This is the beginning of a new chapter in the country's history," Bush said at the White House. "I would urge the people of Haiti to reject violence to give this break from the past a chance to work. The United States is prepared to help."
Aristide's resignation is the latest chapter in Haiti's violent and unstable history. Born 200 years ago when slaves rebelled against France, the country has suffered through 32 coups and generations of crushing poverty.
A former priest who worked in city slums, Aristide became Haiti's first freely elected president in 1990 and brought new hope to the nation. But he was ousted in a military coup only months into his first term and did not return until the U.S. sent 20,000 troops to the island in 1994.
But after he won a second term in 2000, the U.S. and other nations began to withdraw support because of allegations of widespread corruption.
"The task will not be easy for me," the interim leader, Supreme Court Chief Justice Boniface Alexandre, said early Sunday. "Haiti is in crisis. It needs all its sons and daughters. No one should take justice into their own hands."
Haitian Prime Minister Yvon Neptune, who remained in office, appeared alongside Alexandre. He asked Haitians to remain calm, urged unity among government supporters and opponents and read a brief statement from Aristide in which the president said he was resigning to prevent further violence.
"The constitution is the guarantor of life and peace," Aristide said. "The constitution should not drown in the blood of the Haitian people. That's why tonight, as my resignation can avoid a bloodbath, I accept to leave with the hope there will be life and not death."
With Aristide gone, government supporters and opponents are expected to work with the international community to appoint a seven-member council that will set up an interim government. It was unclear how long it would take to install a new government or hold elections.
"We all take the commitment that we never, never again return to dictatorship in Haiti," said Andre Apaid, an opposition leader. He said political opponents were committed to helping "build a different Haiti."
One wild card is the role to be played by the insurgents, a motley group led by several former military and police officials responsible for extensive human-rights violations and suspected of drug trafficking.
Guy Philippe, the main rebel leader, told CNN that he was willing to lay down his weapons despite controlling much of the country.
"If we move in Port-au-Prince, it will be to [impose] security, but we don't intend to fight anymore," Philippe said.
By early afternoon, witnesses said they saw former soldiers and rebels taking up positions in the capital and cooperating with Haitian police. Attached to the windshield of a car at one roadblock was a sign reading "Liberation Front--Armed Forces of Haiti."
Many experts and diplomats are concerned the new government could be dominated by former military and police officials who may undermine Haiti's fragile democracy.
One rebel leader, Louis-Jodel Chamblain, headed a feared paramilitary group that killed several thousand civilians in the early 1990s. He is joined in the insurgency by several other notorious paramilitary leaders as well as Philippe, a former police official whom Aristide accused of leading at least one failed coup against his government.
"If you want to have a functioning government with any hope of being democratic, you need a government that doesn't include the paramilitary groups," said Robert Fatton, a Haiti expert at the University of Virginia. "If you don't do that, you are bound for a very immediate conflict."
Fatton and other experts said a second key issue in bringing stability to Haiti is a long-term commitment of resources and personnel by the U.S. and other members of the international community.
After the U.S. restored Aristide to power in 1994, the troops left after five months without creating stable political, social and economic structures.
U.S. Ambassador James Foley said Sunday that the United States and other nations had learned from the failed intervention a decade ago and plan on "doing better this time."
"It is very clear that the efforts that were made 10 years ago did not yield the kind of results," Foley said. "There are tremendous lessons to be learned from that experience."
Also critical to Haiti's future is the reaction of armed Aristide loyalists. Many of them rampaged through the streets of the capital early Sunday, but by late afternoon they seemed to have returned to their strongholds in Port-au-Prince's slums.
Those gangs gained power as Aristide's dwindled. After flawed legislative elections in 2000, political opponents began campaigning for Aristide to be removed. In response, the president allegedly provided arms to militant supporters and used them as street muscle.
One of those groups revolted against Aristide in early February, took control of the nation's fourth-largest city and over the next three weeks joined with former military and police officials to take control of most of the country. More than 100 people were killed during the four-week insurgency.
By Sunday, when Aristide requested U.S. assistance and left the country at 6:15 a.m., the rebels had advanced to within 30 miles of the capital.
Aristide appeared headed for Africa. The New York Times reported that his destination was the Central African Republic.
As word broke that Aristide had fled, hundreds of militant supporters and others poured into the streets around the National Palace and exchanged gunfire with police and others. Businesses were looted and burned.
Civilian shot in leg
Lorient Monplaisir, a 33-year-old bed salesman, said he was guarding his business when pro-Aristide militants known as chimeres, or fire-breathing monsters, blasted him with a 12-gauge shotgun.
"The chimeres were coming to break down my store," he said as he lay on a hospital gurney, a shirt pressed against his leg wound.
Angry Aristide supporters also ransacked the two-story police station in the upper-class neighborhood of Petionville, carting away tables, chairs and desktop computers.
But armed residents chased away the looters and secured the station with the help of police.
"I was one of the first ones here," said a 58-year-old resident carrying a 9 mm handgun. "They tried to burn it. We stopped them."
Toward the city center, a maroon Toyota mini-van was stalled in the middle of a street. The mini-van's side-door was open, revealing a corpse inside. Another man lay face down in the road, shot in the head.
"Those were the ones giving terror, and this is the result," said Jean Marie Augustin, 32. Augustin said the two victims were militant Aristide supporters who opened fire on police and were killed.
By the late afternoon, the area around the National Place--long a gathering point for Aristide supporters--looked like a post-apocalyptic landscape. Windows were blown out by gunfire. A Texaco station had been gutted and torched, and a lonely figure used a broom to sweep up charred debris.
Nearby, at the State University Hospital, ambulances transported gunshot victims to emergency rooms.
Asked how he felt about Aristide's departure and the day's violence, a middle-aged ambulance driver paused for a moment in thought.
"I can't say whether I'm angry or sad," he said. "I'm just shocked. I've lived through many days like this in Haiti."