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Armed rebels spread into second Haitian city


PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti - Armed rebels seeking to oust President Jean-Bertrand Aristide spread to a second port city yesterday, while the mainstream opposition appeared to pull back from association with four days of violence that has killed 18 people, mostly policemen.

Attacks on government officials in Gonaives and Saint Marc have ravaged the volatile, impoverished cities on the Arcadian Coast since Thursday, when gang members once loyal to Aristide seized the Gonaives police station, freed 100 prisoners and burned the mayor's home.

Calling themselves the Gonaives Resistance Front, the militants previously known as the Cannibal Gang held onto the city of 200,000 despite an assault by 150 heavily armed police sent in Saturday by authorities trying to restore government control. Haitian radio broadcasts said 14 policemen were killed in the daylong clash before the government forces retreated.

Rioting broke out early yesterday in Saint Marc, on the coast between Port-au-Prince and Gonaives. Rebels dragged tires, debris and logs across the main roads to seal off the city and set fire to the obstructions. Police fled overnight to escape the brutal attacks witnessed in Gonaives. News agencies in Saint Marc reported that residents were supporting the uprising and that it was spreading to surrounding towns and villages.

During the failed attempt to retake Gonaives, which was the wellspring of Haiti's 1791 slave rebellion, Cannibal Gang members lynched one policeman and crowds attacked other uniformed corpses with machetes and rocks.

Police have symbolized power in Haiti since 1995, when Aristide disbanded the army, which had conspired with remnants of the 30-year Duvalier dictatorship to oust him in a 1991 coup. Aristide, a former priest who was the country's first popularly elected president after a tortured history of autocracies and coups, was restored to power in November 1994 by the U.S. military.

Widely applauded by Haiti's impoverished masses when he returned from U.S. exile, Aristide and his Lavalas Party have since presided over a profound deterioration of the country. Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, with more than half the 8.5 million population suffering from malnutrition and as many as 80 percent unemployed.

Unrest has been deepening in Haiti since Aristide's party swept parliamentary elections in 2000 that were deemed by international observers to be flawed. New elections were to have been held last year, but opposition forces refused to take part in an electoral preparation council to protest violence and intimidation of political rallies by armed street thugs.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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