A grenade attack on a pro-democracy demonstration Thursday killed at least five people and wounded more than 40 in a bloody act of apparent resistance by Haiti’s military dictatorship and its supporters.
The killings came on the eve of the third anniversary of the violent overthrow of the country’s only democratically elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, whose impending return has been marked repeatedly in recent days by sneak attacks, beatings and shootings of his supporters.
Witnesses said that hundreds of demonstrators marching between downtown and the city’s airport were passing a warehouse owned by Lt. Col. Michel-Joseph Francois, Haiti’s feared police chief and a leader of the ruling military junta, when at least one grenade was thrown from a car that may have emerged from the building.
At the same time, Francois, one of the three Haitian officers who have ruled Haiti with violence and corruption since the coup, was reported by friends and U.S. military sources to have packed up things from his office and was preparing to leave the country within days.
Francois would be the first of the three Haitian military leaders to accede to U.S. and U.N. demands that they leave power.
Witnesses said Thursday’s grenade or grenades were thrown by known members of a civilian wing of the Haitian army, at least one of whom was later tracked by a U.S. military police team using dogs and led away in handcuffs.
The final death toll from the second attack on peaceful demonstrators in two days was incomplete by dusk Thursday, but eyewitnesses, hospitals, the Haitian Red Cross and U.S. officials agreed that the total killed or wounded was more than 40.
A passing U.S. Army patrol came upon the scene and opened fire just moments after the explosions.
It was unclear whether the American gunfire hit any of the demonstrators or any of the attackers, but at least one of the attackers was reported among the dead.
U.S. Army Col. John Ryneska, who also happened by the scene soon after the attack, said none of the American troops were injured, and he confirmed that at least one Haitian had been detained.
Reacting to the incident, U.S. Ambassador William Lacey Swing told reporters that the U.S. government “condemns in the strongest terms the explosions which took place this afternoon.”
With Haiti “undergoing fundamental, watershed change . . . such brutal acts of violence are not totally surprising,” Swing said. He issued a stern appeal for calm today, saying, “We would simply urge everyone to avoid violence.”
Tension and violence have been building since a mission led by former President Jimmy Carter, backed by the threat of an imminent U.S. invasion, forged an agreement Sept. 18 under which the Haitian military leadership is to resign no later than Oct. 15 and allow Aristide’s return in exchange for immunity from prosecution for its role in the coup.
The agreement was followed by the peaceful arrival of U.S. troops, who have taken increasing but not yet total control of the country.
U.S. officials said Thursday that about 19,000 U.S. troops are now in Haiti--including some brought in to replace soldiers who are about to depart--and the number “may go a little higher.” Pentagon officials initially estimated that about 15,000 would be deployed here.
Haitian military leaders and the civilians who often do their bidding say they are abiding by the Sept. 18 accord, but they apparently have engaged in various acts of violent resistance. One person was fatally wounded Wednesday, and several others were also hurt, when men fired from a car at demonstrators.
As Francois prepared to leave and some of his followers apparently were engaged in Thursday’s attack, thousands of Haitians swarmed outside City Hall, listening through loudspeakers installed by U.S. forces as Port-au-Prince Mayor Evans Paul reclaimed the office taken from him during the coup.
The last time Paul tried to enter City Hall, on Aug. 8, 1993, a mob summoned by the military stormed the building and killed eight people. Paul, a 38-year-old former radio newscaster and playwright with an immense public following, had been in hiding ever since.
Paul, whose popularity and anti-military stance have brought several beatings and near-fatal torture in 1988, called on each ruling general--and on Francois by name--to depart.
“No law says you must leave the country. . . . but for the sake of peace, you should do it,” Paul said to deafening applause. “Leave the country for a time. When peace is restored, you can come back.”
The mayor, who many Haitians believe could succeed Aristide in presidential elections scheduled for next year, punctuated his speech with the trademark chant of Haiti’s pro-democracy struggle: “The cock has crowed! Get up! Stand up!”
He also announced a new battle cry: “Justice! Democracy! Progress!” And the crowd outside chanted with him as he shouted the words more than a dozen times.
Paul also appealed several times during his half-hour speech for peaceful change and called on all Haitians to shun revenge.
“A true democrat does not seek vengeance,” he said. “A democrat does not seek violence. A democrat seeks only peace, democracy, justice, unity and progress. . . .
“We wish that no one will fear anyone or anything,” he said as dozens of U.S. troops stood guard outside. “If someone does not believe what we believe, leave them in peace. We are all Haitians. We should live together in the same country in peace, even if we disagree.”
Thursday’s pro-democracy marchers did not heed Paul’s call. They sacked the warehouse at the site of the grenade attack, hauling out thousands of bags of cement that Francois had obtained while still in control.
Francois, who used his position to earn millions in businesses ranging from auto towing to smuggling to cement importing, will retire and go into exile in the neighboring Dominican Republic, where he has a home and huge investments, sources said Thursday.
The 36-year-old Francois was the backbone of the Sept. 30, 1991, coup that drove Haiti into the bloody spiral of violent chaos that brought on a devastating economic embargo and climaxed with the U.S. military intervention.
“He was in his office yesterday and packed up his things,” said a friend who accompanied the shadowy, almost mythical head of Haiti’s corrupt and brutal police force to his headquarters in the center of the capital.
“I expect him to turn in his papers for an early retirement and leave for the DR within 24 to 72 hours,” the friend said.
A U.S. military source confirmed the account, adding that Francois may have left by the end of the day Thursday. Military commander Lt. Gen. Raoul Cedras and his chief of staff, Brig. Gen. Philippe Biamby, have repeatedly denied that they will leave the country, although both are expected to resign their positions before the Oct. 15 deadline.
Bloody as it was, Thursday’s violence could be only a prelude to future horror, observers here said.
Diplomats and U.S. military officials expressed deep fear that the grenade attack and the earlier bloodshed will be dwarfed by conflicts today as huge pro-Aristide demonstrations collide with opponents who have threatened, and now have acted, to exact revenge for their impending loss of power.
U.S. officials said they took Thursday’s grenade attack “extremely seriously” and indicated that Lt. Gen. Hugh Shelton, commander of the American forces that began arriving here Sept. 19 to guarantee Aristide’s eventual safe return, will meet urgently with Cedras in an effort to stop the violence.
“These attacks are the last, desperate acts of a dying regime,” one Haitian political expert said. “They are so filled with hatred and fear that they are giving in to barbarism. They know they are dying, and they want to make certain that others die with them.”
U.S. Embassy spokesman Stanley Schrager indicated that the U.S. military will beef up its forces and has a detailed plan to handle any violence today. But U.S. troops will try to remain as much in the background as possible, Schrager said.
“We will have a significant deterrent presence at this march and at these demonstrations,” he said. But he too urged restraint.
“What we’re after . . . is a safe, peaceful demonstration with no provocation, no incidents and no injuries,” he said. “This is a chance for peaceful expression and a chance to demonstrate discipline as well.”