PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti - Rebels overran Haiti's key northern port of Cap Haitien yesterday, extending their control to half the nation as U.S. and other foreign diplomats pushed opponents of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide to accept their proposal for quelling the deadly revolt.
Police put up little resistance as about 200 gunmen took over Cap Haitien after only a few hours of sporadic gunfire. The quick submission of Haiti's second-largest city - the latest in a score of towns to fall to the rebels - underscored the evaporating support for the once wildly popular Aristide.
While the rebels celebrated their toppling of Cap Haitien, Aristide backers erected barricades on roads leading into the capital and dragged cinder blocks across key intersections in the city center - to be fortified if rebels make good on threats to march on Port-au-Prince.
Although an assault on the capital seemed unlikely given the rebels' scattered nature and limited numbers, Cap Haitien also had been well-braced to repel an onslaught until a few days ago, when frightened police barricaded themselves in their stations.
The armed pro-Aristide gangs now patrolling the capital scared most would-be Carnaval revelers into staying home yesterday, despite a five-day holiday period that runs through tomorrow. Major streets in this city of 2.5 million were eerily devoid of traffic, and even 24-hour gas stations closed to avoid becoming targets of the gangs, which have burned private businesses elsewhere.
In Cap Haitien, residents cheered the arriving truckloads of gunmen in camouflage and then looted public buildings in the gunmen's wake, radio reports said. One group of government officials commandeered a plane and flew to Port-au-Prince before the airport fell into rebel hands.
At least four people died in the rebels' morning onslaught when Aristide backers at the airport initially tried to fend off the invaders, RadioVision2000 reported. Among the dead was a 12-year-old girl, apparently caught in the cross fire.
News agencies in the city described a lawless scene, with residents surging into the police station, pro-government radio stations and shuttered warehouses to steal everything from food and furniture to lightbulbs and doorknobs.
Guy Philippe, a former police chief in Cap Haitien who took part in the 1991 coup against Aristide, led the rebel storm into Cap Haitien and proclaimed the assault an act of liberation.
The sweep of violence and destruction has now killed more than 60 people and cut off the capital from vital ports and inland cities. Food, fuel and medicine are in short supply in many rebel-held areas.
The rebels' advances have complicated diplomatic efforts to resolve a four-year impasse between Aristide and his mainstream political opponents, as the chaos and instability gripping the north and central plains have weakened Aristide to a point where the opposition believes he will be forced to flee the country.
On Saturday, Aristide conditionally accepted a peace plan presented by U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Roger Noriega and delegates of the Caribbean Community, the Organization of American States and France. It calls for appointing a new prime minister acceptable to both Aristide's Lavalas Party and the opposition coalition, known as the Democratic Platform, as a first step toward organizing elections that should have taken place last year.
Democratic Platform leaders, however, have refused to negotiate with Aristide, contending that he has lost the support of most Haitians after a decade of corrupt and ineffective leadership. They contend that cooperating with Aristide under international auspices would provide life support to a mortally wounded regime and betray the will of the masses who no longer want him as leader.
The political crisis began four years ago, when pro-Aristide gangs broke up opposition campaign events ahead of the May 2000 parliamentary elections and Aristide's party was accused of falsifying the results of the voting.
Those events prompted the opposition to boycott the presidential election six months later, in which Aristide ran virtually unopposed and was elected in a vote with low turnout. Many countries soon cut off aid to Haiti.
So far, opposition leaders have rejected the diplomats' arguments that unless they sign on to the plan for a new prime minister, they would be seen as collaborating with the rebels and cut themselves out of any role in Haiti's future.
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.