Small Crowds Cheer Rebel Leaders

Cheered by a small crowd, Haiti's rebel leaders rolled through this stronghold of former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide (search) on Monday, past a roadblock where the charred bodies of three men lay.

Perched on the back of a motorcycle, a Haitian holding pistols in both hands became an impromptu escort for the convoy of men who started the rebellion that forced Haiti's first freely elected president to flee the country Sunday.

The bodies at the barricade were the only sign of the Bale Wouzo (search), or Clean Sweep, a group of militant Aristide supporters that had terrorized St. Marc, a port town 45 miles northwest of Port-au-Prince (search), the capital.

Such groups had sought to crush dissent as Aristide's popularity waned in the Caribbean's poorest nation, but they failed to prevent the uprising that broke out Feb. 5 and has resulted in more than 100 people dying in fighting and reprisal killings.

Rebels have been welcomed as liberators by many people, though two of their leaders previously have been convicted of political assassinations and have ties to an earlier military dictatorship. The chief rebel leader, Guy Philippe, has a "dubious human rights record," Human Rights Watch says, citing killings linked to a Philippe deputy.

Hundreds of people cheered the rebels driving toward Port-au-Prince, roaring through towns and villages with emergency lights flashing and a motley array of M-16 and AK-47 assault rifles (search) and even a World War II-era M-1 hanging out the windows.

The convoy started out Sunday from Cap-Haitien, Haiti's northern port, winding over mountain roads past cow sheds and shacks. At nearly every small town, people gathered to cheer and wave.

Some supporters brought out drums and cowbells to serenade the rebels with a celebratory rhythm. "Merci, merci," people shouted in thanks.

At Gonaives, where the rebellion first erupted, hundreds ran alongside the convoy of a half-dozen pickup trucks and all-terrain vehicles at dusk Sunday. "Good job!" people shouted as they crowded around the vehicles to welcome the 50 rebels for the night.

"No one can drive in Gonaives city now -- so many people in the streets," boasted one of the rebel leaders, Butteur Metayer.

A bust of Metayer's slain brother, Amiot Metayer, glowed orange from the light of a fire burning in the middle of the street.

Amiot Metayer's Sept. 22 assassination led to protest rallies in Gonaives that eventually boiled over into rebellion. He had been the leader of the Cannibal Army street gang, which Butteur Metayer says was armed by Aristide's Lavalas Party to terrorize the president's opponents in the city -- a charge Aristide denied.

Metayer was viewed by many people in Gonaives as a Robin Hood who lavished gifts on slum dwellers and his killing angered supporters.

After Butteur Metayer launched the rebellion, former soldiers of the disbanded Haitian army crossed the border from the Dominican Republic to join the uprising. It was the former troops who gave impetus to the push that put half of Haiti in rebel hands within two weeks.