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Haitian Police Return to Gonaives Following Prisoner Escape - 2002-08-03

Haitian police returned to the town of Gonaives Saturday after gunmen broke into a local jail and freed a political militant as well as a host of other prisoners.

In the culmination of a night of chaos Friday, gunmen used a tractor to bulldoze their way into the jail to free Amiot Metayer, a self-described supporter of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

Witnesses said Mr. Metayer and 158 other detainees fled, disappearing among the local populace. One prisoner was shot dead during the jailbreak.

Police abandoned the city as gangs roamed the streets, setting fire to several government buildings and a police car.

In the morning, police returned with reinforcements to restore order to the town and its 200,000 residents. Gonaives is almost 100 kilometers northwest of the capital, Port-au-Prince.

Mr. Metayer was arrested in Gonaives last month on suspicion of torching buildings in area slums during an outbreak of violence involving a rival leader.

He has been implicated in the December 17 slaying of a bodyguard of Luc Mesadieu, a politician in the opposition Democratic Convergence coalition. The killing followed an assault on the National Palace during a failed coup.

The Associated Press says Mr. Metayer has not been charged in connection with the violence that followed the palace attack. He has proclaimed his innocence.

Friday's jailbreak comes one day after Mr. Metayer sent an open letter to President Aristide, asking why the Haitian leader has allowed him to remain in jail. Mr. Metayer's supporters have been demanding his release.

The violence demonstrates how close to chaos the hemisphere's poorest country is. Haiti is mired in a two-year old dispute over legislative elections that has cut off foreign aid.