PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (AP) — Anti-government rebels took
control of at least nine towns in western Haiti yesterday, and the
death toll in the violent uprising rose to at least 40, witnesses
said.

In the strongest challenge yet to the authority of President
Jean-Bertrand Aristide, armed rebels began their assault Thursday
in the Gonaives, Haiti’s fourth-largest city, setting the
police station on fire, driving police officers out of the town and
sending government workers fleeing for safety.

“We are in a situation of armed popular
insurrection,” said opposition politician and former army
Col. Himler Rebu, who led a failed coup attempt against Lt. Gen.
Prosper Avril in 1989.

The deaths were reported by the Associated Press, Red Cross
official Raoul Elysee, rebel leaders Wenter Etienne and Jean-Yves
Marcisse, and Haitian radio.

At the weekend, the rebels took the important port city of St.
Marc, where hundreds of people looted TV sets, mattresses and sacks
of flour from shipping containers.

Using felled trees, burning tires and cars, residents blocked
entry to several towns. Rebels blocking the road into St. Marc from
Port-au-Prince, the capital 45 miles away, told Associated Press
reporters yesterday that if they entered the city there was no
turning back to Port-au-Prince. They only would be allowed to
travel deeper into rebel-held territory.

The main rebel group is the Gonaives Resistance Front, formerly
a gang of pro-Aristide toughs who terrorized government opponents
but since have turned on the Haitian leader. In Gonaives, they were
joined by some former soldiers of the disbanded Haitian army. The
rebels are being supported by residents who have formed
neighborhood groups disgruntled by mounting poverty, corruption and
political crises.

Anger has brewed in Haiti since Aristide’s party won
flawed legislative elections in 2000 and international donors
blocked millions of dollars in aid. The opposition refuses to
participate in new elections unless Aristide resigns; he insists on
serving out the term that ends in 2006.

Aristide was elected in Haiti’s first democratic election
in 1990, then ousted months later by the army. He was restored to
power in a 1994 U.S. invasion. He disbanded the army and replaced
it with a small civilian police force that is accused of being
trigger-happy and partisan.

In one the bloodiest clashes, 150 police tried to retake
Gonaives on Saturday but left hours later after a series of
gunbattles, witnesses said.

At least nine people were killed, seven of them police.

Crowds mutilated the corpses of three police officers, according
to AP reporters. One body was dragged through the street as a man
swung at it with a machete, and a woman cut off the officer’s
ear. Another policeman was lynched, and residents dropped large
rocks on his body.

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