Rebels fighting to depose the Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide tightened their noose around the capital, Port-au-Prince, yesterday as heavily armed street gangs loyal to the embattled president went on a carjacking and looting spree.
A final showdown with rebel forces led by former army and paramilitary death squad commanders could come within days. President Aristide once again warned of a bloodbath, predicting thousands of dead if the rebels attack the city.
Stopping short of asking for military intervention, the President begged for outside support for his beleaguered police force. "Hurry. Hurry to stop these terrorists," he said at a news conference, referring to the rebels. One US Senator, the Republican Mike DeWine of Ohio, said President George Bush would have no choice but to send in troops if the situation deteriorated.
The capital's international airport was briefly cut off in the morning as armed Aristide supporters, apparently fearing a rebel attack at any moment, used burning tyres and vehicles to block roads from the airport to the city. American Airlines delayed its morning flight for three hours until the situation cooled down. After the United Nations ordered non-essential personnel to leave, US Marines escorted them to the airport. Canada said it had sent a unit of troops to protect its 1,000 or so citizens in Haiti.
The breakdown in social order, following a long, bittersweet night of music and dancing to mark the end of Carnival, appeared to be triggered by the breakdown of talks between the President and the political opposition, which decided in the end it was more important to force Mr Aristide's resignation than to enter into a power-sharing agreement with him.
Fears that the rebels would move into the capital rose after the anti-Aristide politicians, who claim not to be linked to the rebels, publically rejected the US-backed peace plan that would allow Mr Aristide to remain President, but with reduced powers.
Some US congressmen also warned of a bloodbath and said the crisis could lead to a new wave of frightened and hungry Haitians attempting to reach other Caribbean islands, or Florida, on home-made boats. The British overseas territory of Turks and Caicos reported that up to 400 Haitians had landed on the island over the past week and that only 100 of them had so far been rounded up and detained pending repatriation to their homeland.
The British islands' Chief Minister has asked the Royal Navy to send a frigate to keep the boat people out.
The rebels apparently attacked the northern city of Port de Paix on Monday, extending their control in the north, which is now cut off from the capital by roadblocks manned by civilian gunmen from one side or the other. President Aristide rushed 50 policemen to the western city of St Marc on Tuesday after reports that the rebels were about to attack.
With foreign civilians and diplomats' families pulling out, Haiti's tourism industry also appeared on the verge of collapse. The rebels made a point of attacking the perimeter of an exclusive northern beach resort at Labadie, owned by the Miami-based cruise line company Royal Caribbean International. The gunmen wounded a security guard. Foreign tourists used to disembark at the beach from their luxury liners, drink rum punch and buy souvenirs in an area totally barred to ordinary Haitians.
In the areas close to the airport yesterday, armed Aristide supporters blocked roads with boulders, stopped cars and demanded money. Some drivers paid, others just yelled and swerved through. There were no reports of shots being fired.