ST. MARC, Haiti – An armed uprising spread to nearly a dozen towns in western and northern Haiti (search) on Monday, the strongest challenge yet to President Jean-Bertrand Aristide (search). At least 42 people have been killed in what the government says is an attempted coup.
After sporadic gunbattles, police regained control of the important port city of St. Marc (search), 45 miles west of Port-au-Prince. At least two men were shot and another was allegedly shot and killed by Aristide supporters. His body was left at the side of the road.
An Aristide supporter was later shot and killed in clashes on a highway near the western city of Grand-Goave, according to witnesses.
In the first visit by a senior government official to any of the 11 affected towns, Prime Minister Yvon Neptune inspected the charred remains of the St. Marc police station Monday.
Neptune called on Haitians to help restore calm.
"The national police force alone cannot re-establish order," Neptune told The Associated Press. He told state television on Sunday that "the violence is tied to a coup d'etat."
The uprising, which began last week in the city of Gonaives, signals a dangerous turning point in Haiti's longtime political crisis. A similar revolt in 1985 also began in Gonaives and led to the ouster a year later of dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier and the end of a 29-year family dictatorship.
"We are in a situation of armed popular insurrection," said opposition politician Himler Rebu, who led a failed coup against Lt. Gen. Prosper Avril in 1989. He said Monday he had no part in the current uprising.
Tension has mounted since Aristide's party won flawed legislative elections in 2000 and international donors blocked millions of dollars in aid. Misery has also deepened with most of the nation's 8 million people living without jobs and on less than $1 day despite election promises from Aristide, a former priest who had vowed to bring dignity to the poor.
With no army and fewer than 5,000 poorly armed police, the government is ill-equipped to halt the revolt. Police stations have been a major target because they symbolize Aristide's authority and officers are accused of siding with government supporters in a wave of protests that began in mid-September.
Since capturing Gonaives, a city of 200,000 people, on Thursday, the rebels have spread to towns to the west and north, including the Artibonite valley that is the breadbasket of Haiti.
In Port-au-Prince, opposition parties met to discuss whether they should join the rebels and agreed late Monday to distance themselves from the uprising.
"We do not recognize ourselves in the armed insurrection but in the peaceful struggle of the people for democracy," said Mischa Gaillard, an opposition politician. "We deplore violence."
In Grand-Goave, some residents fled with belongings perched on their heads. Insurgents also torched police stations in the northern towns of St. Raphael and Dondon.
The United States condemned the violence and called on Aristide's government to respect human rights. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said Haiti's problems will be solved by dialogue, negotiation and compromise, not violence and retribution.
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said the United Nations "will be stepping up our own involvement fairly soon" but did elaborate.
The rebels are led by several factions, including former Aristide supporters, former soldiers who helped oust Aristide in a 1991 coup and civilians frustrated by deepening poverty.
Aristide won Haiti's first democratic election in 1990 and was then ousted months later by the army. He was restored in a 1994 U.S. invasion, and later disbanded the army.
Rebels have clashed with police in at least 11 towns, stealing weapons from police stations before setting them ablaze. In three towns, rebel leaders said they appointed mayors and police chiefs.
Rebels and residents have set up barricades of flaming tires, wrecked cars, and felled trees on roads leading to Gonaives, St. Marc and the northern city of Cap-Haitien, preventing trucks from delivering fuel for electric power generators. With no fuel, the towns could lose power by late Tuesday, said a power company official who declined to be named.
It was unclear how many people have been killed but tolls put together from witnesses, Red Cross officials, rebel leaders and radio reports indicate at least 41 have died.
Reporters watched as crowds mutilated the corpses of three policemen in Gonaives on Saturday. One body was dragged through the street as a man swung at it with a machete, and a woman cut off the officer's ear. Another policeman was lynched and stoned.
"Aristide can no longer save the situation for his regime. The end is looming," former President Leslie Manigat said by telephone Monday. The army ousted Manigat in June 1988, after five months in office.