GONAIVES, Haiti – Before a raging fire, rebel fighters in this bleak western town offered metal scraps Saturday to a voodoo war god, portending still more violence for Haiti.
Though rebel leader Guy Philippe (search) has pledged his fighters will disarm, many insist they will not give up their weapons until militant supporters of exiled President Jean-Bertrand Aristide (search) do the same.
Rebels who choose not to show their weapons in public openly admit they have stashed them for later use. And the Gonaives (search) ceremony to Ogun Feray, the war god, indicates Haiti's bloody uprising might not be over.
"In terms of where the guns are and who we will surrender them to, that's a secret," said local rebel commander Winter Etienne, 40. "When you lay down your arms you always want to have them someplace where you can pick them up again if you need them."
The challenge of disarmament is just one of many stumbling blocks facing the impoverished Caribbean nation, where an armed rebellion that began Feb. 5 has killed at least 130 people and forced Aristide to flee the country.
On Saturday in Port-au-Prince, a recently appointed council met to choose a new prime minister. Officials said they hoped to have a decision by Tuesday. Opposition leaders have been pressing for the replacement of Yvon Neptune, who stayed in his post even after Aristide fled the country.
Leslie Voltaire, a minister in Aristide's government and a member of the tripartite commission that chose the council, said he was satisfied with the group's neutrality and independence.
"They will meet today, they will meet Sunday, and by Monday we will have a new prime minister," Voltaire said.
U.S. Marines patrolling the capital withdrew some of their guards from around the presidential National Palace and the prime minister's office Saturday after it became clear that the overwhelming show of force had become a sore point with Haitians.
"We've just basically pulled them back, trying to provide less of a military presence in the areas and allow people to get back to their daily lives without us hanging over them," said Staff Sgt. Timothy Edwards. "We don't want to appear like an occupation force."
The first big opposition march since Aristide's departure is planned for Sunday, and police and peacekeepers will be working together to prevent violence. Aristide's supporters have sometimes attacked opposition marches.
In the tiny town of Mont Rouis, a French combat helicopter landed Saturday, drawing a large crowd of curious onlookers and indicating that peacekeepers might be increasing patrols of the countryside. Soldiers wouldn't say what they were doing there, however.
About 60 Canadian soldiers also arrived Saturday, adding to the nearly 2,000 foreign troops now in Haiti.
Since independence from France, Haiti has suffered under dictators. Aristide was the first freely elected leader, a wildly popular slum priest who became president in 1990 on the strength of his fiery rhetoric and vows to help the poor.
But his popularity diminished after he was re-elected in 2000. Haitians said he failed to improve their lives, condoned corruption and used police and armed supporters to attack his political opponents.
The armed groups in Gonaives, the birthplace of Haiti's 1804 independence, say they won one battle by removing Aristide, but they say another battle is on the horizon.
Until a new government and electoral commission is formed -- and their pro-Aristide enemies forcibly disarmed -- the rebels have no plans to surrender their weapons.
"I plan to die with my pistol on my chest," said Wilfort Ferdinand, 27, the town's de facto police chief, who wears a mock sheriff's badge.
Gonaives fighters mounted their challenge to Aristide's government after the gun slaying of one of their hometown heroes -- a street gang leader once loyal to Aristide. The city could pose problems for police and international peacekeepers hoping to get militant groups to hand in their guns.
U.S.-led troops surveyed the area Friday, prompting rebels to hide their weapons.
When the uprising began a month ago, rebels in Gonaives proudly displayed shotguns and pistols and erected massive barricades of shipping containers to block police and Aristide militants.
Today, the barricades are mostly gone and residents are struggling to resume normal life.
In the northern rebel stronghold of Cap-Haitien, armed patrols still roam the city at night, and some said they were the only thing preventing looting and house burnings.
Rebel commander Maurice Daniel said he has been in touch with the Americans and the police, though he wouldn't say what they discussed.
"We will welcome them with open arms once we know that the security of this city is in place," he said of the Americans.