10 Haitians Die, U.S. Translator Wounded as Gun Battles Erupt : Caribbean: Marines respond with force as shooting breaks out at police station in northern port of Cap Haitien. A crowd of angry Aristide supporters is caught in the line of fire.
Ten Haitians were killed in a series of firefights late Saturday night in this northern port after a large group of supporters of ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide tried to push their way into police headquarters, according to preliminary reports from Marines and civilian witnesses.
The first gun battle occurred around 7 p.m. when the Aristide supporters, numbering as many as 1,000, started heading toward the police station in the center of town in what police officials believed was a very threatening matter. One police official started firing into the crowd, witnesses say, killing two Haitians.
Nearby, members of the Marines’ Echo Company heard the gunfire and rushed to the scene. Some of the gunfire was close enough to them that they returned fire, a top Marine official said.
“It’s for sure that the Marines received fire and returned fire,” the official said.
Because the crowd was so large, the Haitians were in the line of fire and eight were killed, officials said. Among the eight was at least one Haitian police official. During the exchange, a Marine support person, a translator, also received a superficial wound from a ricocheting bullet and was evacuated to the amphibious helicopter ship Wasp, a Marine official said.
Details were very sketchy, and officials were tight-lipped on the incident, saying that they will issue a full statement this morning. “This is the closest understanding that we’ve got at what happened at this point,” an official said. “We’re going to wait until daylight until we say anything more. We need more time to sort this thing out.”
In Port-au-Prince, a military spokesman said: “Military officials are investigating the incident. No further details are available at this time.”
The trouble began, witnesses said, when the crowd gathered around the stationery store of an American-born Haitian, Michel Paret, who apparently does not support Aristide. Paret reportedly pulled a gun to ward off the crowd and fired, witnesses said. One person was shot in the leg and was taken to the hospital, and Paret was arrested.
Late Saturday, Marines shot up flares to light the scene and ordered the demonstrators to raise their hands over their heads and to move back into their homes. Within an hour, the streets, darkened by a lack of electricity, were all but empty.
Earlier, Maj. Mark Milley of the newly arrived 10th Mountain Light Infantry Division from Ft. Drum, N.Y., had predicted that there wouldn’t be any violence.
Milley said many of his units served in similar roles in Somalia. “But,” he said earlier, “we don’t anticipate in Haiti anything approaching the problems we had in Somalia. There seems to be no anti-America sentiment or violence so far up here. I think everyone’s going to get along.”
But should the area erupt into violence, Milley said, and should President Clinton order an evacuation, the 300 Americans who live in the city, Haiti’s second largest, would be asked to assemble at the local hospital or soccer field to await flights out.
“But that is so unlikely, it’s beyond comprehension,” he said.
The 10th Mountain infantry troops started arriving Saturday to replace the Marines, who secured the northern coast Tuesday and had been scheduled to begin fanning out to the countryside. There was some speculation that the Marines’ departure could be delayed by the incident.
The episode marks the first exchange of fatal gunfire between Americans and Haitians since U.S. troops landed in Haiti a week ago in an effort to restore democracy to the island nation, and it is certain to further escalate tensions there. It underscores the uncertainty and danger that are likely to continue to plague the U.S. military operation, despite the presence of more than 10,000 U.S. troops on the island.
The violence marred the first visit to U.S. forces in Haiti by Defense Secretary William J. Perry and Gen. John M. Shalikashvili, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
As Perry and Shalikashvili arrived, hundreds of demonstrators marched through the streets of Port-au-Prince in a show of support for Aristide and were attacked by police, witnesses said. A group of police officers shot tear-gas canisters from the back of a pickup into the crowd, the witnesses said, and took away at least five of the protesters.
The attacks came after the demonstrators were out of sight of U.S. troops at the city’s port and international airport. A U.S. military spokeswoman said that there were no U.S. personnel in the area and could not comment on or describe the incident.
And Perry, questioned later at the airport, said: “I have no indication that our troops saw that. I do not have that information.”
But he said “that U.S. troops can and should take action if the situation warrants” when they encounter police attacks on Haitians.
The U.S. military’s “rules of engagement” for its troops in Haiti include the order, “Do not hesitate to respond with force against hostile acts and signs of hostile intent.”
The issue of continuing Haitian-on-Haitian violence has posed the most serious political problem for U.S. commanders here and in Washington since American forces first landed Monday.
The killing Tuesday of a pro-democracy demonstrator by Haitian police within sight of U.S. soldiers guarding the port prompted a controversy over the rules of engagement for U.S. troops, as well as over the agreement reached by the Clinton Administration and the military dictators that allows the leaders to stay in power until Oct. 15.
While U.S. troops have disarmed the most powerful units of the Haitian army and American commanders have ordered Haitian leaders to stop all acts of violence against the Haitian people, lightly armed Haitian police and other paramilitary forces loyal to the military junta are still in place.
The Haitian police are hardly visible on the streets of Port-au-Prince near U.S. troops, but many Haitians on the capital’s streets insisted Saturday that paramilitary groups and police are still harassing them in neighborhoods not yet patrolled by U.S. military police.
The paramilitary groups “still (give) us problems,” said Louis Amonnon, who was waiting in a U.S. government office downtown Saturday afternoon in an attempt to ask American officials to start military police patrols of his neighborhood. “There are no American patrols there, and the (paramilitary groups) come every day,” he said.
“They should have more American patrols; (the Haitian) police are still out there,” said Frantz Valcaint, a pro-Aristide demonstrator who saw the police attack in Port-au-Prince on Saturday.
President Clinton, in his weekly radio address, confirmed reports that U.S. forces have begun not only to confiscate heavy weapons controlled by the Haitian military but also to buy back light weapons from the paramilitary groups and civilians. Many Aristide supporters had warned that without some effort to disarm Haiti’s paramilitary attaches and other backers of the Haitian military, civil unrest would erupt soon after U.S. forces leave.
Perry and Shalikashvili arrived in Haiti on Saturday morning and conducted a quick tour of U.S. forces in the Port-au-Prince area and in Cap Haitien before the violence broke out.
Perry said that while U.S. Lt. Gen. Hugh Shelton has been meeting with Haitian leader Lt. Gen. Raoul Cedras, the meetings are not “ ‘negotiations’ about Cedras’ status.”
The issue of whether the military leader will have to leave the country after he gives up power Oct. 15 has been one of the main sticking points of the last-minute agreement hammered out between the Haitian leaders and an American team of negotiators led by former President Jimmy Carter. That accord averted a U.S. military invasion just hours before it was scheduled to begin and led to the awkward status of coexistence between U.S. forces and the military junta they were supposed to evict.
Perry insisted that while the Carter agreement “did not demand that he (Cedras) leaves the country, we believe he should and will.”
Aristide has not yet fully endorsed that agreement, but U.S. officials still expect him to return to Haiti from his U.S. exile soon after Oct. 15 in order to reinstall his government. But U.S. officials and Haitians alike continued to debate whether the priest-turned-politician will be able to unify Haiti’s deeply divided society in time to avert a return to chaos and bloodshed.
Speaking on CNN’s “Newsmaker Saturday,” Aristide critic Raymond Joseph, editor of the newspaper Haiti Observateur, called the ousted Haitian president “a man who sends double messages. . . . I don’t know whether he’s not having a special message for Americans and another for his people.”
But the Rev. Gerard Jean-Juste, an Aristide supporter and a member of the ousted government, told CNN, “The rejoicing will be peaceful” when Aristide returns to Haiti. Declaring that Aristide is ready to reach out to affluent Haitians who have not supported him, Jean-Juste said, “We need skilled Haitians, talented Haitians, from all walks of life to come together and work.”
During his visit, Perry refused to say how long U.S. troops will remain in Haiti. He noted that the Clinton Administration has “set the end conditions” that it wants to achieve in Haiti, but “we have not set the end date.”
But in his radio address, Clinton repeated assurances that U.S. forces will not stay long.
“Our mission . . . is limited,” Clinton said. “We must remember, as I plan to tell the United Nations General Assembly on Monday, that it is up to the people in those countries, ultimately, to ensure their own freedom.”
Perry and Shalikashvili noted that small units of the multinational force now being trained to take over many functions in the Haiti operation should begin arriving in the next week or two, with a larger buildup later in October and in November.
Serrano reported from Cap Haitien and Risen from Port-au-Prince. Times staff writer Melissa Healy also contributed to this report from Washington.