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New Haitian PM Calls Rebels 'Freedom Fighters' - 2004-03-21


Haiti's new Prime Minister Gerard Latortue has praised insurgents in the northwestern town of Gonaives who began the uprising that forced former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide from power.

Mr. Latortue spoke to a cheering crowd of about 2,000 people Saturday, after arriving to his hometown aboard a U.S. Army helicopter. He described rebels in the country's fourth-largest city as "freedom fighters" against the Aristide regime, dismissing claims they were "thugs."

Mr. Latortue also met with rebel leaders in the town, who turned over a handful of weapons in a symbolic gesture. Haitian officials say they hope to begin disarming groups in coming weeks.

Meantime, military officials with the multi-national peacekeeping force say a French legionnaire in Gonaives was killed when a gun accidentally misfired.

Dozens of French peacekeepers have deployed to the town and the northern port city of Cap-Haitien in an effort to ensure order.

Haiti's political crisis came to a head last month when Mr. Aristide resigned and fled to the Central African Republic. He later traveled to Jamaica, where is expected to remain for several weeks.

Mr. Aristide has said the United States forced him to resign - a charge U.S. officials have strongly denied.

Some information for this report provided by Reuters and AFP.

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