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Aristide Blames Opposition for Haiti Violence - 2004-02-12

Haiti's President, Jean Bertrand Aristide says his country's political opposition is responsible for violence now wracking the impoverished Caribbean nation. At least three people died Wednesday in clashes between police and rioters, bringing to 46 the number of people killed since last week, when armed gangs seized several towns in the northwest part of the country.

Speaking to foreign reporters at Haiti's Presidential Palace, Mr. Aristide says the opposition is backing the armed gangs who seized the city of Gonaives and other nearby towns over the past week. "Unfortunately what is happening in Gonaives is unacceptable. An opposition, using terrorist actions, through thugs, to keep hostage about 153,000 people," he said. "This is not acceptable."

Police say they are making progress clearing armed gangs from towns near Gonaives, Haiti's fourth largest city, which is about 100 kilometers north of Port-au-Prince. However sporadic violence continues in the town of St. Marc, 70 kilometers north of the capital, where police claimed to have routed armed gangs on Monday.

Haiti's second largest city Cap Haitian is without power and there are reported clashes between police and government supporters against anti-government protesters. Mr. Aristide says despite the violence he hopes to end the crisis through negotiation. He says police have been cautioned to move slowly to avoid any unnecessary violence.

"When I say we prefer to go slowly, it is to say we will be willing to go fast and make mistakes," says Mr. Aristide.

Members of a broad coalition of opposition business leaders, politicians and representatives of civil society groups, have criticized the violent now under way in Gonaives and elsewhere in Haiti. Opposition leaders say some of the armed gangs now controlling Gonaives are former Aristide allies who have turned on their former patron.

Haiti's current political crisis dates to legislative elections in 2000 which international observers called flawed. Since then the opposition and the government have been unable to agree on new legislative elections, leading to political paralysis.

Haiti's opposition charges that Mr. Aristide's government is guilty of human rights abuses, corruption and mismanagement, and had done nothing to alleviate Haiti's extreme poverty, charges Mr. Aristide and his supporters strongly refute.

Opposition leaders have called on Mr. Aristide to step down, but on Wednesday Haiti's President repeated that he has no intention of leaving office before his term officially expires in February 2006.