Protests Mar Haiti's Bicentennial Celebrations

Bloody clashes between protesters and police marred Haiti's bicentennial celebrations Thursday as embattled President Jean-Bertrand Aristide (search) faced growing unrest in his shattered country.

Underscoring deepening political divisions, more than 15,000 government supporters rallied outside the National Palace in the capital while about 5,000 presidential opponents marched toward downtown, shouting "Down with Aristide!"

Amid the turmoil, Aristide clasped hands with dignitaries attending the 200th anniversary of Haiti's independence, including South African President Thabo Mbeki (search) and American actor Danny Glover (search).

Police fired tear gas and warning shots to scatter the crowd, and some protesters lay down before them shouting "freedom." At least two demonstrators were wounded by bullets and six were hit by rocks.

"Today is a day for celebrating freedom," said Rodney William, 33, a business owner. "But for us, that means freedom from slavery and freedom from Aristide."

The thousands of government supporters were equally fervent, some of them knocking down a fence at the palace and scrambling onto its lawn as they crowded toward the podium, chanting: "Aristide is king!"

The bicentennial comes as a bittersweet remembrance for a country that triumphed over slavery and colonialism two centuries ago only to become the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, struggling to neutralize nagging political and economic troubles.

Aristide, like many leaders before him, spoke wistfully of the future Thursday instead of the past. His beleaguered administration has been rendered ineffective with a lingering political impasse and shaky international support. He is barred from running for a third term.

"It was 1804 that was the stinging bee but 2004 is sure to be the year of honey," Aristide smiled as he rallied a frantic crowd of supporters Thursday.

Tensions have increased in Haiti since Aristide's Lavalas Family party swept 2000 legislative elections that some observers said were flawed. The contested seats were eventually vacated by senators but the opposition has refused to participate in new elections unless security is improved and Aristide steps down.

Aristide has refused to cave to opposition demands, but he faces fading support. Defying threats of violence on Thursday, he spoke in the capital and then headed to Gonaives where the country's declaration of independence from slave-holding France was signed Jan. 1, 1804.

"The time has come ... to demand respect for the constitution, respect for everybody without distinction," Aristide told some 2,000 supporters in Gonaives' central square.

But the decaying city was free of fanfare for the historic day.

"The people are afraid. A ghost town is celebrating the bicentennial with Aristide," said Rosanne Dalzon, 30.

A group of prisoners, meanwhile, broke through a wall at the National Penitentiary and escaped Thursday in Port-au-Prince as riot police tried to push back anti-government protesters. It was unclear how many inmates got away but three were captured.

The government spent $15 million on the celebrations, including galas, New Year fireworks and the dedication of a monument to Haiti's forefathers. But many world leaders stayed away.

Those attending festivities at the National Palace included more than a dozen foreign delegations, activists and actors.

"We celebrate the Haitian revolution because it dealt a deadly blow to the slave traders who had scoured the coasts of West and East Africa for slaves and ruined the lives of millions of Africans," South African President Thabo Mbeki told the crowd. He said a "historic struggle" remains for people to overcome poverty and conflict on both sides of the Atlantic.

In Miami, thousands of Haitian-Americans celebrated. "These are big days for us, for every Haitian," said Gisline Augustin, a resident of the Little Haiti neighborhood.

Aristide said he is working with the opposition to bring about new legislative elections. But opponents have refused to participate and urged a boycott of Thursday's state-organized events, including another presidential speech in western Gonaives, where Haitians declared their independence from slave-holding France on Jan. 1, 1804.

Haiti was born after the world's first successful slave rebellion. Independence leader Toussaint Louverture was captured and imprisoned on the French-Swiss border, where he died. But on Nov. 18, 1803, French troops surrendered to forces led by Jean-Jacques Dessalines.

Independence became official when Haitians presented a declaration in a New Year's Day ceremony at Gonaives' central square.

The Caribbean country has seen more than 30 coups since, and a string of leaders drove it into disarray.

Since mid-September, violent anti-government protests have killed at least 41.

U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters, a California Democrat, said the anniversary was cause for celebration but criticized Washington for not helping more, saying Haiti "has never received the support that it deserves."

Recently, international lenders and donors suspended more than $500 million in loans and grants after the contested legislative elections.