A short-lived attempt to seize power by the reputed chief torturer of the Duvalier regime was put down by the Haitian army Monday.
The abortive coup d’etat by followers of Roger Lafontant touched off the worst mob rampages in Haiti’s bloody recent history, leaving a reported 40 people dead, many of them lynched in rings of burning rubber tires.
Most of the victims appeared to be followers of Lafontant, who was interior minister under dictator Jean-Claude (Baby Doc) Duvalier. Lafontant seized the presidential palace Sunday night, declared himself president and held provisional President Ertha Pascal Trouillot hostage for 12 hours.
The brief takeover attempt ended Monday morning when a regular Haitian army unit stormed the palace, arrested Lafontant and a dozen associates and freed Trouillot unharmed.
U.S. envoys and other diplomats praised the army for passing the first major test of its newly proclaimed loyalty to constitutional government since the internationally observed election three weeks ago of Father Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a populist Roman Catholic priest, as president.
Lafontant, who reportedly commanded the notorious Tontons Macoutes militia under the Duvalier regime, had vowed to prevent Aristide from taking the oath of office at his scheduled inauguration Feb. 7.
Aristide has repeatedly pledged to bring Lafontant and other Duvalier loyalists to justice.
The mob rampages began within hours after Lafontant forced Trouillot to broadcast her resignation and proclaimed himself president.
Beginning before dawn, tens of thousands of protesters poured into the streets of the capital, erecting barricades of wrecked cars and burning tires throughout the city.
By 9:30 a.m., when the army assaulted the palace, the crowds were estimated by foreign diplomats to number in the hundreds of thousands.
Jubilation and a deadly sense of purpose took hold as word of Lafontant’s arrest spread, and crowds surged toward targets, not all of them Duvalierists, that many of Aristide’s followers perceived as their enemies.
Among them were the house of the Roman Catholic archbishop of Port-au-Prince, Francois Wolff Ligonde, a distant Duvalier relative who only a week ago issued a pastoral warning against the dissident leftist priest who is about to take office as the country’s leader.
Another mob burned the just-restored 18th-Century cathedral of Port-au-Prince, and still another attacked and burned the residence of the papal nuncio (the Vatican’s ambassador), where Pope John Paul II stayed when he visited Haiti in 1983.
The fiery mood of the crowds apparently reflected Aristide’s long-running fight against the church hierarchy that led to his expulsion from the conservative Salesian order of priests two years ago.
The slum priest, whose charismatic sermons in favor of the poor made him a landslide winner in Haiti’s first free, democratic election Dec. 16, has said he will give up his ordination and become a layman when he takes office.
Acrid black smoke from burning structures, including looted stores and houses, cast a pall over the city through the morning.
By early afternoon, the pall reeked of burning flesh as mobs began lynching suspected Duvalierists.
The charred remains of four bodies lay like milestones on the airport road, which mobs had barricaded to prevent Lafontant or any other suspected Duvalierists from fleeing the country.
Another 15 bodies could be counted along the main boulevard from the capital to its posh suburb of Petionville.
Witnesses said they counted 20 to 42 bodies outside the former headquarters of Lafontant. Many of these dead were said to have been Aristide supporters who were mowed down by gunfire and grenades when they tried to storm Lafontant’s heavily armed, walled compound.
Although most of the crowds had broken up by nightfall, some looting and lynching continued after dark, according to a witness who saw two men being beaten to death near the Lafontant house. By late Monday night, most of the capital was quiet.
There were reported rampages in other Haitian cities, according to local radio stations, but no reliable counts of casualties.
A leading Haitian political scientist and several other Haitian civic leaders contacted late Monday said it was the worst dechoukaj (the Creole term for uprooting) they had witnessed, surpassing even the wave of destruction and revenge killings that followed the flight of Baby Doc Duvalier on Feb. 7, 1986.
Ironically, neither Lafontant’s seizure of the palace nor the army’s subsequent storming of it caused any casualties, according to diplomats who followed the events closely.
They said the onetime Duvalierist henchman apparently thought that his audacious capture of Trouillot and seizure of the massive, white presidential palace would spark a supporting chord among Haiti’s undisciplined army troops, but almost none rallied to his cause.
Among a dozen people arrested and held with Lafontant at army headquarters was only one soldier, a junior warrant officer said to be a mechanic responsible for the armored personnel carrier that the Duvalierist rebel used to kidnap Trouillot from her home and take her as a hostage to the palace at about 9:30 Sunday night.
Army sources said that another 20 soldiers who did not take part in the palace takeover but were thought to support Lafontant have been arrested.
The turning point early Monday occurred when Army Chief of Staff Maj. Gen. Herard Abraham issued an uncompromising condemnation of Lafontant’s “terrorist act” and vowed that the army would “fulfill its mission and help the country on the road to democracy.”
Aristide later made a brief radio broadcast congratulating the army, the people and the diplomatic corps for bringing Lafontant’s brief power grab to an end.
“Hold on tight,” the onetime slum priest urged his supporters after Lafontant’s arrest.
Before the Sunday night crisis, Abraham had been reluctant to pursue Lafontant, even though a warrant had been issued for his arrest when he returned to Haiti from exile in the Dominican Republic last July.
Lafontant openly flouted the arrest order and even attempted to get on the ballot as the Duvalierist presidential candidate in the Dec. 16 election.
Trouillot, a Supreme Court justice who was named provisional president to see the country through the elections, had appeared on the verge of tears when she read her forced resignation in the early hours Monday.
But in mid-afternoon, she seemed calm and cool as she appeared on national television to announce that she was back at work and would continue until Aristide is inaugurated.
“May God continue to protect Haiti,” she said to the people who have survived five governments and four coups since the Duvalier dynasty ended almost five years ago.