CAP-HAITIEN, Haiti – Rebels overran Haiti's second-largest city in their biggest victory of a bloody uprising and said soon they will attack the capital in their campaign to oust President Jean-Bertrand Aristide (search).
As thousands of looters rampaged through Cap-Haitien (search) Sunday, rebel leader Guy Philippe predicted a quick victory over Aristide's partisans, who sought to block any advance by erecting flaming barricades on the highway into the capital, Port-au-Prince (search), from the north.
"I think that in less than 15 days we will control all of Haiti," Philippe said at a Cap-Haitien hotel as he swigged from a bottle of beer.
Sources close to the government said several Cabinet ministers in Port-au-Prince were asking friends for places to hide in case the capital is attacked.
After rebels drove government troops from Cap-Haitien, a city of some 500,000 on Haiti's north coast, thousands of people went on a looting spree.
The takeover of Cap-Haitien by some 200 fighters was the most significant advance by Aristide opponents since the uprising began on Feb 5. At least 15 people died in Sunday's fighting.
The two-pronged rebel assault quickly engulfed key points in the city. The police station was burned, then looted, as was a pro-Aristide radio station. Thousands of people rushed to the port and carted off goods.
"We're all hungry," said Jean Luc, 11, who strapped four 110-pound sacks of rice to a bicycle and was precariously trying to pedal it home.
Residents also defaced posters of Aristide, who was wildly popular when he became Haiti's first freely elected leader in 1990 but lost support since flawed legislative elections in 2000 led international donors to freeze millions of dollars in aid.
Opponents accuse him of failing to help those in need in the Western hemisphere's poorest country, allowing corruption and masterminding attacks on opponents by armed gangs. Aristide denies the charges.
The rebels say they have no political agenda beyond ousting Aristide, but the man who started the rebellion, Gonaives gang leader Buteur Metayer, on Thursday declared himself the president of liberated Haiti.
Rebels have now driven government forces from half the country. As Cap-Haitien stood on the brink of falling, police stayed barricaded in their posts, saying they lacked the personnel and firepower to fend off the insurgents.
Many people expressed joy at the rebel victory.
"The people are happy. Finally we're free from terror," said Fifi Jean, 30, as she stood in front of the blazing police headquarters, which was burned after the police fled amid the rebel assault. As night fell, fires broke out in the homes of some Aristide supporters in Cap-Haitien.
As the rebel leader predicted victory, his fighters, clad in camouflage uniforms and black flak jackets, sat by the hotel pool in lounge chairs, drinking beer and eating plates of goat, chicken, rice and beans.
Philippe said he wanted to see Aristide thrown in jail and put on trial, although he did not know what charges the country's leader would face, saying it would be up to Haitian judges to try him.
The rebel leader was an officer in the army when it ousted Aristide in 1991 and instigated a reign of terror that ended in 1994 when the United States sent 20,000 troops to end the military dictatorship and restore the president to power.
In taking Cap-Haitien, rebels said their force only met resistance at the city's airport, where Philippe said eight militant civilians loyal to Aristide were killed in a gunbattle.
In addition, seven other bodies were seen for the known total death toll Sunday to 15 in Cap-Haitien. At least one rebel was wounded.
Aristide supporters commandeered a plane from the airport, and witnesses said those who fled on it included seven police officers and former Aristide lawmaker Nawoum Marcellus, whose Radio Africa had been inciting violence against opponents.
"We came in today and we took Cap-Haitien; tomorrow we take Port-au-Prince" the capital, boasted Lucien Estime, a 19-year-old who joined the popular rebellion from the hamlet of Saint Raphael, south of Cap-Haitien.
"Our mission is to liberate Haiti," he said.
More than 70 people have died in the uprising so far.
The United States blames Aristide for the crisis and has made clear it does not want to send troops to restore order in Haiti.
The political opposition in Haiti has said it will respond formally by 5 p.m. Monday to a U.S.-backed peace plan that calls for Aristide to remain president while sharing some power with rivals until new elections could be organized.
The opposition coalition Democratic Platform insists that any plan must include Aristide's resignation.
Aristide accepted the plan, but indicated he would not negotiate with the soldiers who had ousted him in 1991.