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Armed Gangs Shut Down Haitian Capital; Rebels Control Western City - 2004-02-27

Armed gangs of government supporters took over the streets of Haiti's capital on Friday, intimidating residents and shutting down the city. Elsewhere in Haiti, a previously unknown group of rebels took over Haiti's third largest city, Les Cayes. Rebels who control much of northern Haiti are reported to be advancing to within 60 kilometers of the capital.

Gangs of mostly young, mostly poor supporters of Haiti's President Jean Bertrand Aristide sang in the streets of the capital on Friday of how they plan to burn down the houses of those who oppose their hero.

This gang blocked a key intersection in the capital, which links the country's National Palace with Port-au-Prince's main airport. The gangs, known as Chimeres, which roughly translates as ghosts, pulled people from their cars, robbing and intimidating the few motorists who were driving on the capital's streets.

Echoing the line that senior Haitian government officials are espousing, Michel Lebain, a 23-year-old Chimere, called for international peacekeepers to be sent to Haiti to end the anti-Aristide rebellion that is sweeping the country.

Michel Lebain, who says he owes everything to Mr. Aristide, calls the rebels terrorists, and says they must be destroyed. He and his colleagues on the barricades say they will fight to the death to protect President Aristide.

Rebels under the command of former regional police chief Guy Philippe are advancing south from Haiti's second largest city, Cap Haitien. On Friday, they were reportedly in control of the key crossroads town of Mirebalais, about 60 kilometers from Port-au-Prince. Mr. Philippe says he already has supporters in the capital, and is only waiting to see if Mr. Aristide steps down before advancing.

Haiti's political opposition, which has sought to distance itself from the rebels, is getting more international support as Haiti's crisis deepens.

Following a meeting with Haitian government officials in Paris on Friday, French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin called on Mr. Aristide to resign and give control to a power-sharing government. U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell says Mr. Aristide should carefully consider whether he can stay on as president.

For his part, Mr. Aristide says he has no intention of leaving office before his term officially expires in two years, and says that, if he does, violence could sweep the country, forcing thousands of Haitians to flee in boats toward the United States.