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Haitians March Against Aristide Government;  2  Wounded - 2003-12-31

Two people were wounded when police fired on protesters in Haiti's capital Port-au-Prince on Tuesday. The protesters are calling on Haiti's president to step down as the Caribbean nation prepares to celebrate it's 200th anniversary January 1.

About 3,000 protesters marched through the Haitian capital demanding that President Jean-Bertrand Aristide step down. Police monitored the demonstration which lasted several hours, but stepped in to block the protesters from marching down a street where armed pro-Aristide supporters occupied several buildings.

After a noisy confrontation, police dispersed the crowd with teargas and gunfire. A short while later police and Aristide supporters exchanged gunfire.

Tensions are high in Haiti as the nation prepares to celebrate its 200th anniversary on Thursday.

Anti-Aristide militants have blockaded a slum section in the port city of Gonaives, where Haiti's President is scheduled to speak on Thursday in the city where Haiti's independence was declared on January 1, 1804.

Mr. Aristide's opponents accuse him of doing little to pull Haiti out of extreme poverty, and of trampling on civil and human rights. Mr. Aristide has defended his government in speeches, saying great improvements have been made in Haiti despite many obstacles.

Andre Apaid who heads the opposition group, known as the Platform of Civil Society says the government is abusing its authority.

"You are not talking about a simple matter of a political difference," he said. "You are talking about the disturbing element of denying us fundamental rights and our civil and political liberties."

Haiti's government accuses the protesters of trying to disrupt bicentennial observances, and of being behind growing political violence, a charge opposition civil society groups strongly deny.

More than 40 people have died in anti-government violence since September. Human rights groups say the violence is increasing.

Mr. Aristide's government and the opposition have been deadlocked since national elections in 2000 which Mr. Aristide's Lavalas party swept, and which the opposition says were rigged, a charge the government denies.