Baby Doc's right-hand man back in business: Machine-gun fire echoes through Haiti's capital on the day President Aristide should have returned from exile

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The Independent Online
'I AM not a violent man. But if foreign troops disembark on my soil, I shall resist. I am ready to die for my poor, dirty little country. I was an expert in anti-guerrilla warfare. Listen well.' There is doubt as to whether Franck Romain, 57, former Duvalierist mayor and police chief of Port-au-Prince would be anywhere near the beach were there to be foreign intervention. But he was well aware his staring eyes and dramatic gestures would soon be beamed around the world, and more particularly into President Clinton's Oval Office.

Nor was his claim to non-violence believed by the newsmen Mr Romain surprised in a dramatic breakfast visit to the Oloffson Hotel. Mr Romain was once the most feared individual in the land, a leader of the notorious Tontons Macoute gunmen and alleged to be responsible for a 1988 church massacre during a service held by the man who became Haiti's exiled president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

Mr Romain was seen with the church gunmen shortly before the massacre, in which 13 people died. He fled the country a few days later and has lived in exile in the neighbouring Dominican Republic since. Now, it seems, the right-hand man of Jean-Claude 'Baby Doc' Duvalier is back. He had, he said, been allowed back by Mr Aristide's Prime Minister, Robert Malval. 'I've known Mr Malval for 30 years.'

It was only a temporary visit, he said. But he appeared to suggest he considered himself very much back in the Haiti game. 'I'm ready to sit down with him (Mr Aristide),' he said. Why an exiled, suspected mass murderer would be involved in any negotiations, he did not explain.

Mr Romain is also on a list of leading Haitians barred from the United States and whose assets there have been frozen. The ex- mayor said he had no idea why.

The breakfast visit to the hotel came after a night of heavy gunfire in the capital and rumours of in- fighting involving soldiers, police and para-military gunmen. Reporters listening in to military and police VHF radio channels heard not only local Creole, but also American and Spanish voices as the rifle and machine-gun fire crackled through the deserted streets for more than four hours until midnight on Saturday.

The American voice may have been a US marine or security guard, one of a small force here to protect American diplomats. He spoke of sending help to someone trapped by the gunfire. A female American voice referred to him in her reply as 'colonel'. Haitians who listened to the VHF traffic with reporters said they thought one Creole voice may have been that of Port-au-Prince police chief Michel Francois, whose resignation, along with army commander General Raoul Cedras, is demanded by Mr Aristide, the US and the United Nations.

Voices spoke of going to the presidential palace, then to the airport. Someone was said to be headed for the Dominican Republic. But by dawn yesterday the capital was quiet and there was no indication that anything appeared to have changed. Had the shooting been a particularly heavy session of intimidation? There were no bodies on the streets, no signs of damage, only an eerie calm.

The shooting, much of which appeared to come from roving four- wheel drive vehicles, may simply have been celebrations by troops, police or gunmen who prevented Mr Aristide from returning from exile as scheduled on Saturday.

At one point during Saturday the evening, a burst of sub-machine gun fire broke out within 20 yards of the hotel where UN special envoy Dante Caputo was dining. His security guards went on extra alert but Mr Caputo continued eating.

Gazing, stunned, as Mr Romain leaned forward in anger from his chair at any suggestion he had ever killed anyone, was 19-year-old Waldeck Janvier. Mr Janvier was one of the street orphans fed and housed by Mr Aristide at the St Jean Bosco church where the 1988 massacre took place, who narrowly escaped unharmed . Waldeck clearly could not believe his eyes.

'I don't think Mr Aristide is very stable. His head turns in all directions at once,' said Mr Romain. 'I know one of the perpetrators of the St Jean Bosco massacre. He went to Libya and is now in the Dominican Republic. I will not name him. But he is from the sector of Aristide himself.'

An American photographer who narrowly escaped death in the attack looked incredulous, but continued taking his picture.

And why did Haitians fear Mr Romain so? In his slow, elaborate French, he replied. 'Perhaps they do hold me in a certain regard.'

(Photograph omitted)