Mobs torch Haiti opposition offices after Aristide survives coup attempt

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President Jean-Bertrand Aristide appeared yesterday to have survived an attempted coup in Haiti, which started just before dawn when gunmen rushed into the presidential palace firing weapons and killing four people.

There was no word on the identity of the men, seven of whom were reported captured by palace guards. On the streets of the capital, Port-au-Prince, there was word that either the military or the opposition Democratic Convergence party had been behind the assault. Mr Aristide was not in the palace at the time of the attack.

Oriel Jean Baptiste, the chief of palace security, said: "We have the palace under control. One of the attackers is dead, some are in custody, and some have fled." Rumours of an impending coup had been circulating in Haiti for days, where tensions have been running high. Hundreds of Haitians loyal to Mr Aristide rushed through the capital on hearing news of the attack. Armed with machetes, many set fire to tyres in protest.

The failed coup was the latest sign of growing anti-government sentiment, fuelled by opposition claims that legislative elections held in May 2000 were illegally rigged in favour of the President's Lavalas Family party. The row has prompted the freezing of $500m (£340m) in international aid, which has further plunged the country into poverty.

At least two policemen and two passers-by were reported dead after the morning raid on the palace. Later, radio reports said mobs had converged on the offices of the opposition Democratic Convergence party and the Caribbean regional organisation, Caricom, and set them on fire. It was unclear if there had been more casualties.

Mr Aristide, first elected in 1990, is strongly disliked by the élite and the military, which ruled the country from 1991 until the US intervened in 1994. He was restored to office in that year, before being replaced by René Preval. With strong support from poorer Haitians, Mr Aristide, a former priest, was re-elected as President a year ago.

Violence has repeatedly surfaced in recent months. In July, gunmen dressed as soldiers killed three officers in an attack on the police academy in Port-au-Prince, killing three officers, which led to widespread protests. Earlier this year, Amnesty International warned that the human rights situation in Haiti was worse than at any time since 1994.