GONAIVES, Haiti – Sharing a platform with rebel leaders, Haiti's interim leader Saturday praised the gunmen who began the uprising that chased Jean-Bertrand Aristide (search) from power and even paid tribute to an assassinated gangster.
About 3,000 people cheered and clapped for Prime Minister Gerard Latortue (search), who held his first rally in his hometown of Gonaives, where Haiti's independence was declared 200 years ago and starting point for its recent rebellion.
"I ask you for a moment of silence for all the people who fell fighting against the dictatorship, and especially for Amiot Metayer (search)," Latortue said as the crowd went wild. Metayer was the leader of the Cannibal Army street gang, and his death sparked the rebellion.
Rebel leaders who still run Haiti's fourth-largest city sat on a platform alongside Latortue, Organization of American States representative David Lee, recently installed interim Cabinet ministers Bernard Gousse and retired Gen. Herard Abraham, and new Haitian police chief Leon Charles.
Rebel leader Winter Etienne, self-declared mayor of Gonaives, welcomed Latortue and told the crowd his fighters would surrender their weapons when a police presence is restored to the city, which had about 250,000 people before the uprising erupted Feb. 5.
Latortue paid tribute to Metayer and those killed in the fighting to oust President Aristide. More than 300 people died — dozens of them police who failed to overcome the rebels.
Metayer's Cannibal Army gang ran the docks at Gonaives and was said to control drug-trafficking through the port. The gang also was believed to have been armed by Aristide to terrorize his opponents.
Aristide finally had Metayer arrested last year after months of pressure from the OAS, which demanded he be tried for allegedly burning homes of opponents. Gang members rammed a tractor into the prison to free him in September, and Metayer's bullet-riddled and mutilated body was found days later.
"They took out his eyes. They took out his heart," Latortue said of Metayer.
Metayer's brother, Butteur, assumed leadership of the gang; he claimed Aristide ordered his brother's killing to keep him from publicizing damaging information about him.
With his death prompting the uprising that brought about Aristide's downfall, Metayer has become a hero in the town. Many feared him. Others saw him as a Robin Hood who lavished gifts on slum-dwelling Aristide supporters.
Thousands of them have fled the city since the Feb. 5 gunbattle in which Metayer's men killed several police officers and torched government buildings.
Lee said Latortue's visit symbolized "a return of authority." But Charles acknowledged the city would continue to be run by rebels until a police presence is re-established.
About 150 French Legionnaires rolled into Gonaives on Friday. On Saturday they remained behind the walls of the State University, where they set up camp. Another 200 French troops went to Cap-Haitien, the rebel-held northern port of 500,000 that is Haiti's second largest city.
In Gonaives, rebels swapped their looted police gear for civilian clothes when the French arrived, and stopped strutting around town with assault rifles.
The French mission is to allow relief organizations to deliver food and medicines disrupted by the rebellion.
In Port-au-Prince, police said Saturday they arrested Amanus Mayette, a former Aristide legislator and alleged leader of the "Clean Sweep" gang accused of killing dozens of people last month in St. Marc, a port town between Gonaives and the capital.
American missionary Terry Snow said attackers forced victims — including women and children — into houses before setting them ablaze.
On Saturday, as the visitors were enjoying a buffet lunch, Butteur Metayer arrived in a looted police all-terrain vehicle and laid down a dozen rusty weapons wrapped in a Haitian flag — two machine guns but mainly World War II-era M-1 assault rifles and shotguns.
"We are not handing them over because we are scared. But we were fighting against Aristide and not against the Republic of Haiti," Metayer said.
Later, he told The Associated Press the rebellion could return.
"Our plan is to keep working with the government, (but) if the government cannot work with us, we will overthrow it," he said.
Latortue acknowledged the weapons handover was "just a symbolic gesture."
"Obviously we have weapons spread throughout the country, and many people still believe they can't give (up) all of their weapons," he told the AP. "But the symbolism of what happened today is very important."
Lee, asked how he felt about the praise for Amiot Metayer, said, "We're trying to encourage reconciliation."
At the rally earlier, Latortue promised a better life, saying his government would ensure clean drinking water in Gonaives, provide medical equipment and build at least 100 homes and a four-lane highway to replace the potholed two lanes that are Haiti's main south-north highway.
People shouted they also needed working telephones and electricity.
Latortue urged patience: "I cannot give you everything at once and I will not lie to you."