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Aristide Supporters Block Anti-Government Demonstration - 2004-02-12

Sporadic violence continued in Haiti on Thursday with reports of deaths in towns in the northwestern part of the country as a result of clashes between anti-government armed gangs and police. Nearly 50 people have died over the past week in the worst violence Haiti has seen in years. Pro-government supporters prevented anti-government demonstrators from marching in the capital on Thursday.

In a show of force that left anti-government activists intimidated and angry, a large mob of pro-government supporters burned vehicles and used burning tires as roadblocks in front of the Canape Vert square, where anti-government demonstrators had planned to begin their demonstration.

Hundreds of mostly young pro-government supporters pelted their opponents with rocks as police looked on and did not interfere. Their tactics worked. Anti-government organizers called off their march but pledged to try again on Sunday.

Pro-government supporters like Willy, who declined to give his last name, say they will stand behind President Jean-Bertrand Aristide and against the opposition as long as he wants to stay in power.

"They do not have any respect for President Aristide or for the people too, for us. We want to save our power, that is the reason we stand here," he said.

The demonstrators, mostly young and mostly poor, have turned out in large numbers in recent weeks in a show of force and intimidation against President Aristide's opponents, a broad coalition of business leaders, students, politicians and leaders of civil society groups. The tensions in the capital have been minor when compared with violence in towns like Gonaives, St. Marc and Cap Haitien, where scores have died in clashes between anti-government activists and police and their government supporters.

Gonaives, Haiti's fourth largest town, remains under the control of anti-government armed gangs who seized it last week.

Elsewhere tensions are high but government security forces are said to have the upper hand in nearby St. Marc, and in Haiti's second largest city, Cap Haitien, where press reports say violent intimidation has cowed government opponents.

President Aristide says the civil opposition based in Port-au-Prince is behind the violence in Gonaives and elsewhere, but opposition leaders like Andre Apaid, who heads a coalition known as Groupe 184, says the opposition is seeking a peaceful transfer of power to a post-Aristide government.

"The truth of it is that we show every day by exposing our lives peacefully in the streets, using our bare hands to show that we are a non-violent group and not behind something like the violence in Gonaives. People who are behind the violence in Gonaives sit in rooms and wait for their option to succeed," he said. "They do not risk their lives in the streets."

Opposition leaders in Port-au-Prince repeated on Thursday that they want to see Mr. Aristide step down, saying he is guilty of human rights abuses corruption and mismanagement. Mr. Aristide has called the charges ridiculous and says he has no intention of leaving office before his term officially expires in two years.