Haiti: chaos as president flees country

 The situation in Haiti has changed dramatically over the weekend. Yesterday morning it was reported that President Jean Bertrand Aristide had flown out of the country in an unmarked jet, following a three-week rebellion against him. There were celebrations in some parts of the island, but the capital Port-au-Prince is in the grip of near-anarchy. The UN Security Council is expected to meet to approve an international force. President Bush pledged last night that he was sending marines into the country to help "bring order and stability to Haiti". On Friday night the Missionary News Service reported that gunfire could be heard near the police station of Petion Ville, the affluent residential area of Port-au-Prince ten minutes from the city centre. It was feared that rebels hostile to President Aristide had entered the capital, clashing with loyalist forces. MISNA said: "For now it is almost impossible to have precise details of what is happening. People have barricaded themselves inside their homes and the local radios have not yet resumed broadcasting. "Friday was certainly one of the worst days yet for the inhabitants of Port-au-Prince: gangs of armed youths loyal to the President looted hundreds of homes and shops. The population has been told to ration provisions and to shut down electric generators from 10.00 until 16.00 local time due to the shortage of fuel." According to MISNA sources the armed gangs known as 'Chimere', which were backed by Aristide but had been out of control for days, assaulted and looted an orphanage, stole a vehicle from the Red Cross (which had launched an appeal for blood donations) and emptied the armouries of four private security companies. There were also reports of gunfire coming from the area of the French embassy. Meanwhile, a French ship was positioned in the waters off the Caribbean country and was allegedly heading towards the coast west of the capital, in readiness to evacuate foreign staff if necessary. MISNA sources reported that 2,000 United States marines were also due to arrive in the city soon. On Friday, the US embassy in Haiti released a statement asking President Aristide to face up to his responsibilities and end the crisis on the western part of the island of Hispaniola. "The President should never have reached this point," a religious source told MISNA. "Now he has gone too far and has lost all credibility." Other NGOs in Haiti warned that the country was on the brink of disaster. CIIR reported on Friday that President Aristide had sent his daughters to safety in the US, while rebel leader Guy Philippe claimed to have sealed off Port-au-Prince almost entirely. Anne Street, CIIR advocacy co-ordinator for Latin America and the Caribbean, said: "With the possibility of widespread civil unrest and violence, it will be the country's poor who are the first to suffer. Many people in the capital scrape a living selling on the street each day in order to buy food and the prospect of not being able to do this for even a few days could spell disaster. Fuel is running out fast and food prices have soared as availability becomes limited. International agency food storage facilities have also been looted. It is a dire situation. "In rural areas, March is the planting season for many staple food crops. But if the markets are closed, farmers cannot buy seeds and they face potential hunger later this year as grain stocks diminish." CIIR partners report that people are fleeing their homes in a bid to find refuge from the escalating violence. This is putting added strain on food supply chains. Reports of violence towards women have also increased, with the spectre of rapes adding to the rate of HIV and AIDS infections, the highest outside sub-Saharan Africa. The border between the neighbouring Dominican Republic and Haiti has been closed, raising dangers for potential refugees. The Jesuit Refugee Service working in the Dominican Republic, is calling on the government to give refuge to Haitians fleeing the violence in their country. It is also demanding that the Dominican authorities halt repatriations of illegal Haitian migrants until the situation has calmed down. Hundreds of Haitians cross the border each year, both legally and illegally, to escape the desperate poverty and lack of employment in their country. They seek work in the sugar cane plantations and in the tourist and construction industries. Source: MISNA/CIIR

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