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Gangs Control Gonaives as Haiti Crisis Heats Up - 2004-02-16

Almost two weeks ago an armed gang burst out of a slum area of Haiti's fourth-largest city, Gonaives, and seized the entire town. Since then Gonaives has been ruled by gang leaders who are threatening to spread their revolt to the rest of Haiti.

There is not much left to do in Gonaives, but sing these days. For nearly two weeks the city has been cut off from the rest of Haiti by barricades of wrecked and burned trucks that litter the roads into and out of Gonaives.

Residents of the town sing of how they want Haiti President Jean-Bertrand Aristide to leave office, but there is no indication that he or anyone in his administration is listening.

Gonaives is a city of revolt. Two hundred years ago, Haiti's republic was proclaimed here and this is the city where the revolt against the feared and hated Duvalier dictatorship began in the 1980s.

Ten-years ago Haiti's army killed scores of Gonaives residents who led the fight to return Mr. Aristide from exile to his place as Haiti's elected President.

Many of those former Aristide supporters belonged to the Cannibal Army, a gang that controlled the Rabateau slum on Gonaives waterfront. Led by gang leader Amiot Metayer, many Gonaives residents say the Cannibal Army was in effect an armed offshoot of Mr. Aristide's Lavalas Political Party.

That changed six months ago when Amiot Metayer died in a hail of bullets. His supporters say he was killed on Mr. Aristide's orders because he threatened to blackmail Mr. Aristide, a charge Haiti's president, and his supporters call ridiculous.

Now Amiot Metayer's brother, Butteur, leads the revolt in Gonaives against Mr. Aristide. Butteur Metayer says his gang revolted to avenge his brother's murder, and to punish the local police, who he says abused the people of Gonaives. He says the same weapons Mr. Aristides government gave to the Cannibal Army have now been turned against it.

Butteur Metayer and his gang now call themselves the Artibonite Resistance Front. Gonaives lies in the heart of the Artibonite Valley, Haiti's breadbasket. It is a city that has been a bustling commercial and agricultural center for centuries.

Now, the city is struggling. Residents like Jaqueline Toussaint, who runs a small pharmacy, says she cares little for politics, but her business has become a hostage of the revolt. Ms. Toussaint says she has medicine to sell, but nobody in Gonaives has any money to buy them.

Jaqueline Toussaint and her neighbors say they feel cut off from the world. She cannot leave Gonaives and she and her neighbors are worried that food will soon become scarce. Prices have already doubled in the city market.

A few days after Butteur Metayer and his gang seized Gonaives, Haitian police attempted to re-take the town but their attempt met with disaster and several police were killed. Now Butteur Metayer boasts of being joined by more rebels.

He says former Haitian police chief, Guy Philippe and ex-paramilitary leader Louis Jodel Champlain have joined his cause. Butteur Metayer says he is willing to join with anyone to oust President Aristide, even those like Louis Jodel Champlain, who human-rights observers have charged with multiple murders under Haiti's military dictatorship.

Butteur Metayer will not say how many men or how many guns he has. The rebels have made no attempt to move out of Gonaives. He also says he has had no contact with a broad coalition of Anti-Aristide activists in Port-au-Prince who want Mr. Aristide to leave office, saying Haiti's president is guilty of human-rights abuses, corruption, and mismanagement, charges Mr. Aristide and his supporters angrily refute.

So far Haiti's government has made no attempt to retake the town, which is about 100 kilometers north of Port-au-Prince. President Aristide said last week he will negotiate to end the crisis.

Haitian police have retaken several smaller towns near Gonaives that joined the revolt, but have given no indication of when they will move against Butteur Metayer and his gang. Diplomats in the capital say they are worried about the apparent inability of the police to retake the city, and they say law and order could spiral out of control if the crisis continues.