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7448: 50 in building trapped by pro-Aristide crowd (fwd)

From: radman <resist@best.com>

Published Wednesday, March 21, 2001

50 in building trapped by pro-Aristide crowd


BY YVES COLON ycolon@herald.com

PORT-AU-PRINCE - Inside the headquarters of the Haitian opposition Tuesday, 
panic had not yet set in, but the 50 people blockaded in the offices by 
supporters of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide did not know how long they 
could last with no food and little water.
For nearly 24 hours the angry mob outside had laid siege to the building, 
protected only by a high rock wall and steel gates.
"We are being held hostage here," said Paul Denis, a spokesman for the 
Convergence Democratique, a coalition of 15 political parties that has 
challenged Aristide's legitimacy as president by naming its own
president, Gerard Gourgue, a lawyer and human rights activist whose home 
and office are also under attack.
The standoff outside the political headquarters was part of an intensifying 
round of political violence that began over the weekend as supporters of 
Aristide staged street demonstrations and erected burning barricades in 
parts of the city to protest opposition claims that Aristide's government 
lacks legitimacy.
"If we leave the building, they are going to tear us to pieces," Denis 
said. "We are not leaving. We are not going to let them come here and burn 
us down."
Neither the police, nor anyone from the government, has offered them help, 
Denis said. In a second-floor office, as dozens of the coalition's members 
looked on, Denis said the group's only protection amounted to a couple of 
.12-gauge shotguns and a little ammunition.
Broken bottles and rocks littered the courtyard and the street outside. 
Several firebombs were lobbed at the building, Denis said. No one could 
leave or come in.
 From outside, the building appeared deserted. Only a lookout could be seen 
crouched on a balcony, wearing an old and cracked hockey helmet to protect 
himself from the rocks.
                         RIOT POLICE ARRIVE
By mid-afternoon, riot police armed with heavy weapons had sealed off the 
streets leading to the opposition's offices. That lowered the tension 
somewhat, though Aristide supporters remained behind the barricades, 
yelling and screaming. The police did nothing to disperse them.
It was a different story in the morning, Denis said, when a mob of the 
president's supporters, Denis said 50, but other news reports estimated up 
to 200 -- came down the hill facing the building and behind to hurl stones. 
Several firebombs were thrown over the gate, and shots were fired.
One person inside the building was slightly wounded.
"We heard the weapons," said Sauveur Pierre Etienne, another member of the 
coalition who kept fielding calls from supporters in and out of the country 
as he spoke. "They were weapons of war."
The guards inside the building shot in the air in attempt to scare off the 
attackers, Etienne said. "We don't know at what point they are going to 
have a second wave of attackers," he said. "We don't know how long this 
little peace is going to last."
Denis and others in the opposition say Aristide supporters were trucked to 
their headquarters in government vehicles, and they were given the rocks 
and Molotov cocktails.  Aristide's party, Lavalas Family, has consistently 
denied charges of working in collusion with the rioters.
Asked if the government was sponsoring the attacks, Aristide spokesman 
Mario Dupry said, "We are waiting for the police report to be made before 
making statements, but we condemn violence in whatever shape or form."
As the day worn on, the mob continued to chant and lob insults in the 
direction of the office, but it was kept far enough away by riot police 
that rocks and other projectiles could not reach the building.
"Gerard Gourgue is blocking the country, making it impossible for us to 
send our kids to school," said Gerda Vancol, 43, who said she belonged to 
the group Nap Kontinue Batay, Creole for "We are keeping up the fight."
"I voted for Aristide," she said. "These opposition people are selling the 
country to the white Republicans in Washington."
Haiti's latest descent into political chaos began Saturday, when Aristide 
supporters erected flaming barricades among major thoroughfares, stopping 
all activity.
                         STORES STILL CLOSED
By Tuesday, most of what remained were piles of smoldering rubber and the 
burned shell of a van that had been set on fire in Petionville, a suburb in 
the hills where most of the capital's well-to-do live.
Stores throughout the city remained closed on Tuesday.
Opposition members claim that both legislative and presidential elections 
held last year were fraudulent. They want Aristide to call for new 
elections supervised by an independent electoral commission.
Denis said the opposition is doing the right thing by continuing to protest 
and will not be scared away.
"We want to function as a political party, without fear," said Denis, who 
seemed visibly shaken by the day's events.
By Tuesday afternoon, the barricades made of rocks and tree trunks went 
back up with little police presence to force their removal.
Denis and the others said they did not know how long they would hold out. 
"We are not armed and we are exercising our rights as citizens. Maybe we 
will last until tomorrow, maybe we won't."