Looters step over the dead as Haiti collapses into anarchy

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I thought it was a pile of rubbish I stepped on, half-covered by sheets of cardboard on the seedy waterfront of the Haitian capital. It took a photographer colleague to point out that it was the body of a young man, riddled with bullets and covered with rotting fruit. He had not been dead long and he is probably still there this morning.

Hundreds of Haitians trampled over the body as they looted everything they could lay their hands on from the port of this lawless city. The more ambitious were towing cars away, some using other vehicles or some with their bare hands. Such is the poverty of this nation that many ran off merely with crates of empty soft drinks bottles.

The photographer did not take a picture. When I returned to our vehicle, he was looking down the barrel of a very big, very old pistol in the small hands of a teenage boy. The pistol was cocked. "No pictures. No pictures. You go now. You leave," he shouted in the local French Creole. We did.

The looters will be branded as supporters of the Haitian President, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, for indeed they are. But they were literally starving and were merely taking what they could as this city collapsed into total anarchy yesterday. The young man was apparently shot by one of Aristide's armed supporters, the so-called chimères, or phantoms, trying to stop the looting.

So-called anti-Aristide rebels are now said to surround the Haitian capital. The US Secretary of State, Colin Powell, has taken to calling them "the resistance" to elected President Aristide, the man he and his administration long supported. In fact, they are just other starving Haitians, led and armed by former officers of the Haitian army that once served Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier.

When I covered earlier stories in this country - Aristide's dramatic and popular surge to power, the military coup that ousted him and the American intervention that restored him - these leaders were known as the Fraph. It was an acronym, in French, for the Revolutionary Front for the Advancement of the Haitian People. But it was no coincidence that, when spoken, it sounded exactly like "frappe", the French for "hit" or "strike".

The mere word struck terrorised Haitians in the same manner as the group's predecessors, the dreaded Tontons Macoutes of the 30-year- Duvalier family dictatorship.

"The resistance" was one of Colin Powell's least well-chosen expressions.

The condition of other bodies we saw yesterday was more shocking still. One, on the main highway between the old city and the wealthier hilltop suburbs where the country's mulatto, or mixed-race, elite live, had had the genitals cut off, once the calling card of the Tontons Macoutes.

Everything has shut down here. Few people venture out. No one is sure when the so-called rebels will show up. Their leader, Guy Philippe, a former army officer and police chief, abruptly back-tracked on Friday on his threat to storm into the capital this weekend, take the presidential palace and arrest Aristide. Now he says he will starve his own people out by blockading the city. "What we want is desperation first," he said.

To the people of this city, which makes parts of the poorest African cities look attractive, that sounded like the scenario apparently preferred by George Bush. The US President was yesterday contemplating sending 2,200 Marines here, ostensibly to ensure the safety of US diplomats and other citizens. He has made it clear he does not want his men involved in this poor nation's crisis. He has enough on his plate, his advisers say, with Iraq and Afghanistan.

His policy was brutally apparent yesterday as US Coastguard officers, wearing surgical gloves, set ashore what appeared to be a couple of hundred Haitians they had rounded up from leaky boats trying to reach Florida.

"We will turn back any refugee that attempts to reach our shore," President Bush warned last week. He did not say "except if they're Cuban", but it has long been US policy to give asylum to anyone fleeing Fidel Castro's regime.

It was difficult to move around here yesterday. Armed men drove wildly around the city, pointing rifles out of their vehicles and often shooting in the air. Aristide supporters stopped us on almost every street corner in the old part of the city, yelling and pointing rifles in our faces. If you did not know Haiti, you would have been terrified. But they generally ended up removing their barricades for us, laughing and wishing us well. "At least you are not French," they said. They have been angered by the French administration's sudden abandonment of Aristide.

Port-au-Prince now appears to be totally cut off. We reached the international airport yesterday only to find it abandoned but for a few security guards. A group of Swedish tourists here were thinking of driving to the border of the Dominican Republic but were warned that the roads would be dangerous.

The rebels, who began their campaign in Gonaïves and spread north, have now taken large areas of the south and are said to be camped within 10 miles of the capital. In fact, many are probably already here. It is not a classic confrontation. It seems unlikely that the rebels will storm the capital, preferring to infiltrate gradually and pop up if President Aristide is forced to step down or flee.