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Unrest marks Haiti anniversary

Several dozen have died in violence since September

Haitian soldiers patrol Gonaives, where anti-government protestors clashed with police Thursday.
Haitian soldiers patrol Gonaives, where anti-government protestors clashed with police Thursday.

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PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (Reuters) -- Anti-government protesters clashed with police in the Haitian capital on Thursday as President Jean-Bertrand Aristide marked the country's bicentennial with promises to improve the lot of his people.

As Aristide led celebrations of the country's 200th anniversary of independence from France, speaking to a large crowd gathered at the National Palace, thousands of protesters poured into the streets and tried to march toward the palace, witnesses and local media said.

Police used tear gas and fired into the air to hold them back. Many of the demonstrators reacted angrily, setting up numerous road blocks around the city with burning tires, vehicles, car parts and rocks, witnesses said.

Aristide supporters joined police in trying to push the demonstrators back, throwing rocks at them. The protesters responded by hurling rocks back, but finally dispersed when Aristide supporters began firing guns, witnesses and local media said.

An independent radio station, Radio Metropole, said two demonstrators were shot and wounded in the capital. Another Radio station, Vision 2000, said six people had gunshot wounds.

Haiti, which shares the Caribbean island of Hispaniola with the Dominican Republic, became the first black republic when it put an end to slavery and declared independence on January 1, 1804.

Its history has been plagued by violence and, in recent times, by tensions between Aristide and his political opponents, who accuse him and his government of corruption and mismanagement and of trampling on democratic rights.

In recent months, thousands have taken to the streets almost daily to protest against Aristide. Several dozen people have died in political violence since mid-September.

'Epicenter of liberty for blacks'

Junior Desamord raises shackles during celebrations marking 200 years of independence from France at Haiti's National Palace on Thursday.
Junior Desamord raises shackles during celebrations marking 200 years of independence from France at Haiti's National Palace on Thursday.

Aristide, a former Roman Catholic priest who was once a popular hero of Haiti's fledgling democracy, trumpeted the country's freedom on Thursday and pledged to work to eradicate poverty, illiteracy and sickness among Haiti's eight million people.

"The first black republic of the world is and remains the epicenter of liberty for blacks," he told the crowd outside the National Palace.

Haiti, the poorest country in the Americas, has an unemployment rate of more than 70 percent, an average income of less than $1 a day and an average life expectancy of 50 years.

Guests at the celebrations included South African President Thabo Mbeki, who told the crowd Haiti's slave revolt had inspired the world.

The successful uprising delivered a "deadly blow to the slave traders who had scoured the coasts of West and East Africa for slaves and ruined the lives of millions of Africans," Mbeki said.

Radio Vision 2000 reported anti-government protests in the towns of Jacmel, Miragoane and Gros Morne. The station said two people, including a police officer, were injured in Gros Morne.

Aristide also made a brief visit to Gonaives, home of Haiti's independence, but now a hotbed of political unrest. Before his arrival, police searched for and exchanged gunfire with anti-Aristide militants.

South African police said a helicopter belonging to Mbeki's security detail came under fire as it was flying over Gonaives but escaped any direct hits.

"The president and those in his immediate party were nowhere in the area where the shooting took place, Mbeki's spokesman, Bheki Khumalo, told the South African state broadcaster.



Copyright 2004 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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