PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti - Militant supporters of Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide blocked a demonstration planned by civic opposition groups in the capital yesterday, raising barricades of flaming tires and throwing rocks at anyone who tried to breach their blockade.
Militants loyal to Aristide and his Lavalas party started gathering in the square late Wednesday night, and hundreds of them threw rocks, taunted and shouted at opposition protesters yesterday morning.
"With everything I have got I will fight them," said Willy Dumeria, 30, an Aristide loyalist who spent the night in the square where the opposition protesters were to gather.
As he spoke, he pulled a sharpened steel rod from his trousers and brandished it. In his other hand he held a picture of Aristide.
"They don't respect the government," he said of the protesters. "But we will take care of them and save our power. The opposition, they are terrorists."
Opposition groups saw the planned march as a crucial test of Aristide's intentions as the country convulses with armed uprisings in towns along the western Caribbean coast.
Aristide has said that those who oppose his government are free to demonstrate, but the police and pro-Aristide gangs have often blocked marches, firing tear gas and sometimes bullets into the crowds. The protest would have been the first since uprisings began sweeping the country a week ago, killing dozens of people and bringing Haiti to the brink of chaos.
Residents said they heard gunfire in the capital early in the morning. Later, tensions were evident among people in the square.
Opposition members who showed up to march said they were beaten and robbed.
"I just wanted to be a member of the demonstration today because I am afraid of the bad things Aristide is doing," said one of the thwarted protesters, Emmanuel Jean Francois, 27, a university student.
He said Aristide supporters had surrounded him but that he had managed to flee.
"They took my wallet, they took my phone, they were going to kill me," he said. "We students have risen up because they tried to kill us every day. We have no freedom."
At a police station overlooking the square, officers watched but did not interfere. Blockades put up to keep protesters from reaching the square smoldered, snarling traffic throughout the capital.
At a news conference later in the day, opposition leaders denounced Aristide and called upon the United States and other nations to do the same, saying he had not lived up to his pledge to allow dissenters to march.
"We decided we needed to take to the streets to show we offer a nonviolent option," said Andy Apaid, a businessman who represents the Group of 184, a prominent opposition group. "But armed thugs invaded where we were supposed to gather, under the nose of the police station."
Opposition leaders said the march was a chance to demonstrate their groups' strength and emphasize their nonviolent approach in the capital.
In Washington, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said yesterday that the Bush administration is discussing the possibility of asking Canadian or Caribbean police forces to go to Haiti to help re-establish order.
He denied that the Bush administration is seeking to replace Aristide.
"The policy of the administration is not regime change," Powell said.