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Army Loyalty Seen as Hopeful Sign for Haitian Democracy

January 8, 1991

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (AP) _ Soldiers stood by Tuesday as looters carted off goods from stores smashed and burned during angry celebrations of a failed coup, and political leaders praised the army for putting down the uprising.

Authorities said at least 50 people died and 60 were injured in Monday’s rampage after the aborted coup attempt by Roger Lafontant.

Sporadic gunfire from automatic weapons sounded Tuesday throughout Port-au- Prince, the capital city of 1 million, and authorities said two more people died. Many people returned to work, but banks were closed and several shops too damaged to open.

Radio Antilles reported a ″pitched battle″ between soldiers and demonstrators in a slum in Cap-Haitien in the north, Haiti’s second-largest city. It had no details.

Despite the upheaval, politicians and diplomats said the army’s heeding of popular demands to smash the Duvalierist coup attempt Monday improved chances for democracy in this desperately poor Caribbean nation of 6 million people.

The headquarters of coup leader Lafontant’s Union for National Reconciliation Party - for years the symbolic seat of Duvalierism - was reclaimed Tuesday as a ″people’s market.″ Street vendors staked out booth areas and pulled down Lafontant posters, scrawling, ″Long live Aristide. Down with Lafontant″ graffiti on the walls of the building.

Rank-and-file soldiers at the capital’s air force base seized their commander, Col. Rodrigue Prosper, and took him to the High Command, accusing him of complicity in the coup attempt.

Looters picked concrete blocks from the colonial cathedral and Vatican office residence, which were burned by mobs Monday looking unsuccesfully for the archbishop, a conservative.

In suburban Peguyville, about 10 miles from the capital, looters scavenged from the rubble of a burned mansion owned by a wealthy Duvalierist.

″Do you know why we did this?″ asked one woman outside. ″She built this with our blood.″

Crowds also burned the residence of the Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Radio reports said 40 people were killed in the capital and 10 in the countryside, many of them lynched in an orgy of revenge against followers of Lafontant. About 60 people were injured in Monday’s violence.

Lafontant, 58, was chief of the feared Tonton Macoute militia during the 29-year rule of Francois ″Papa Doc″ Duvalier and his son Jean-Claude, who fled the country after a popular uprising in February 1986.

Lafontant returned from exile last July to run for president, but the Electoral Council disqualified him on technical grounds.

He had sworn to stop the Feb. 7 inauguration of radical Roman Catholic priest Jean-Bertrand Aristide, 37, who won an overwhelming victory last month in Haiti’s first successful democratic presidential election.

Since his arrest Lafontant has been held in jail pending probable sedition charges.

Louie Dejoie Jr., who came in third in the presidential vote, said the coup attempt would have been prevented if the military had carried out an longstanding arrest warrant against Lafontant.

″What happened yesterday was the result of the army brass not executing the arrest order,″ Dejoie said. ″But what the army realized was that the rage of the people was something that was uncontrollable. If the army hadn’t arrested Lafontant, then people would have stormed the palace.″

Serge Gilles, leader of the socialist National Progressive Revolutionary Party, said: ″The army correctly evaluated the massive desire of the people to establish democracy and was exemplary in protecting its achievements. In spite of the obstacles ahead, with the dissolution of hard-core Duvalierism our advance will be more secure.″

Human rights activist Jean-Claude Bajeaux said the popular protests were a step in showing the army ″they must expel Macoutes from their own ranks. ... The threat of the people was to make the army take a stand. Now ... (the army) will have to behave.″

Lafontant kidnapped interim President Ertha Pascal-Trouillot from her home Sunday night and took her to the National Palace, where he forced her at gunpoint to announce her resignation on television. He later declared himself president.

After a 10-hour standoff, troops stormed the palace and captured Lafontant. ″The kidnapping of the president of the country, holding her hostage and trying to overturn the results ... of an election - it’s mind-boggling,″ said U.S. Ambassador Alvin Adams.

U.S. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Lafontant never had the support of the army or armed forces chief Maj. Gen. Herard Abraham. They said he tried to overthrow the government with 15 other men, all but one civilians.

The officials said the military has come to terms with the wave of democracy sweeping Haiti after Aristide’s victory.

But one diplomat said the ″nail in the Duvalier coffin″ has yet to be driven many Duvalierists remain and are bent on opposing the rule of Aristide, whom they call a Communist.

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