Haitian Rebels Close In on Capital

Anarchy spread across Haiti's (searchcapital as gangs loyal to the president attacked opponents and rebels pushed to within 25 miles of the city. The president, meanwhile, was clinging to power as the United States urged him to give up his post.

Militants loyal to President Jean-Bertrand Aristide (searchon Friday burned barricades, hijacked cars, looted and attacked the capital's sole operating hospital.

Aristide, Haiti's first democratically elected president, said he would not step down before his term ends in February 2006, even as the United States urged him to cede power.

Some 2,200 U.S. Marines (searchwere put on alert as Pentagon officials weighed the possibility of sending troops to waters off Haiti to guard against any flood of refugees and to protect the estimated 20,000 Americans in the Caribbean country.

Aristide has pleaded for a small contingent of foreign peacekeepers to quell the uprising that has killed about 80 people since it began in the country's north earlier this month.

"I have the responsibility as an elected president to stay where I am," Aristide said. "My life is linked to 8 million people."

The international community -- led by the United States, France and Canada -- has insisted that Haiti's government and opposition reach a political settlement before they intervene.

A senior U.S. official said the Bush administration has concluded that the best way to prevent the insurgents from seizing control is for Aristide to transfer power to Supreme Court Chief Justice Boniface Alexandre, his constitutional successor.

"We urgently call upon President Aristide to issue the necessary instructions so his supporters stop this violence," the U.S. Embassy said, adding that "his honor, legacy and reputation are now at stake." The U.S. government urged all Americans still in Haiti to seek safe haven.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan expressed increasing concern late Friday at "the alarming deterioration" in the country and called on Haitians to settle their differences peacefully.

His statement came as Aristide militants attacked the Canape Vert hospital, the only hospital still operating in Port-au-Prince.

Radio stations said the militants were searching for Aristide opponents. Among the patients was a journalist accused of sympathizing with the rebels and shot in the northern city of Cap-Haitien, which was seized by the insurgents on Sunday.

The report could not be confirmed, but submachine gunfire rang out at one point and three green military helicopters hovered over Petionville, the hillside suburb where the hospital is located.

"The U.S. government is discouraged to report that pro-government groups have begun to burn, pillage and kill," said the U.S. Embassy statement.

The city was chaotic. Armed thugs hijacked cars and robbed people at barricades.

Hundreds of looters pillaged Port-au-Prince's seaport, scurrying with boxes of chicken parts, pork loins, televisions and other goods.

Smoke wafted from the ruins of a torched freight terminal. The body of a dead man lay on the ground amid papers and other trash; it was unclear how he was killed.

The bodies of two executed men also lay a few blocks from the presidential National Palace.

Shops put up hurricane shutters and people stayed home behind locked doors, leaving the streets to pro-Aristide thugs.

A few police patrolled in cars, but were vastly outnumbered by the militants.

The rebels, who have overrun half of Haiti, closed in on the capital, taken several villages as police fled.

Police in Croix-des-Bouquets, just nine miles northeast of Port-au-Prince, shed uniforms for civilian clothes and looked ready to flee.

Guy Philippe, the rebel commander, said rebels have encountered little resistance and he intended to besiege the capital and "close the circle" around Aristide.

"We want to block Port-au-Prince totally," he said in Cap-Haitien. "Port-au-Prince now ... would be very hard to take it. It would be a lot of fight, a lot of death," Philippe said. "So what we want is desperation first."

That strategy threatens further misery to the people already lining up for scarce gas and dwindling fresh food.

Prices for basic goods have multiplied in the capital in the past two weeks: Charcoal, which most Haitians use to cook, is up from $7.50 a bag to $20; cooking oil is up from $1.50 a gallon to $6.25.

On Friday, rebels were seen by an Associated Press reporter in Mirebalais, 25 miles northeast of Port-au-Prince.

The rebels arrived in a truck firing guns, and freed 67 prisoners, said David Joseph, a 40-year-old law student.

As he spoke, about a dozen rebels, some wearing camouflage, patrolled in a truck. "I would gladly join them if I had a gun," Joseph said.

Robbins Jean, 25, an Aristide youth organizer, criticized the United States for pressuring Aristide.

"You tell George W. Bush he is a hypocrite and an assassin because the terrorists are killing the Haitian people," Jean, 25, said near the National Palace where hundreds of youths -- armed with old rifles and pistols, machetes and even a dull, rusty ax -- gathered to repel rebels.

In Paris, French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin met Friday with Aristide's chief of staff Jean-Claude Desgranges and his Foreign Minister Joseph Antonio and repeated his call for Aristide to resign, saying he "bears a heavy responsibility in the current situation."