PORT-AU-PRINCE - Haiti's police and army tried to distance themselves yesterday from the killing of a civilian government minister but military leaders appeared determined to thwart a United Nations-brokered plan to restore democracy.
The army chief, General Raoul Cedras was to step down yesterday as part of the plan under which the army would relinquish power and reinstate the ousted President, Jean-Bertrand Aristide. General Cedras has hinted he might not resign, and even if he does, many Haitians believe the army will remain in control.
The police issued a statement deploring the assassination of the Justice Minister, Guy Malary, and offering a dollars 1,000 (pounds 660) reward to witnesses who could identify the gunmen - linked to the military - who killed him, his driver and two bodyguards on Thursday. The statement was regarded by many political observers as merely a gesture by the police to distance themselves from Malary's murder. The army also issued a statement expressing condolences and denouncing Malary's killing as a 'cowardly and barbaric act'.
Witnesses to the shooting said men armed with machine-guns sprayed Malary's car until it rolled over, then dragged the bodies out and laid them on the street.
Yesterday was expected to be tense, with pro-military groups demanding that Haitians stay home from work and school to observe a 'day of mourning' for Malary. International pressure on the coup leaders was expected to mount with the arrival of new US ambassador, William Swing. On Thursday, the US administration's special envoy to Haiti arrived, with two US army generals, for talks with Haiti's military.
The Prime Minister, Robert Malval, appointed by Fr Aristide as part of the UN peace accord, has vowed to resist demands by pro-military groups for his resignation.
Malary, a lawyer, was appointed in August as part of the agreement to set up a civilian government. He was working on a plan to weaken the army by ending its control of the police.
No one has claimed responsibility for his murder but it was widely believed to have been the work of plainclothes police auxiliaries, known as attaches. The main group of military supporters, members of the Haitian Front for Advancement and Progress, denied involvement.
Throughout the night gunfire crackled in the capital. There were no immediate reports of casualties.
General Cedras, who led the 1991 coup against Fr Aristide, raised doubts earlier this week about his intention to resign by yesterday's deadline, saying he would stand down only if parliament passed legislation granting amnesty to participants in the coup. Parliament is considering the legislation but there was almost no chance it would be passed yesterday.
The UN has voted to reinstate tough sanctions at midnight on Monday if the military does not relinquish power. Theses include a halt to fuel and arms imports, and the freezing of foreign bank accounts and other assets.
The UN envoy, Dante Caputo, has said General Cedras's resignation alone will not be enough to stop the reimposition of economic sanctions. The UN civilian mission in Haiti issued a statement denouncing Malary's murder as the latest in a series of arbitrary executions of Aristide supporters. It said an unknown number of bodies of Aristide followers had been thrown into pits in provincial cities.
President Bill Clinton condemned Malary's murder and said he was determined to restore democracy to Haiti, possibly by a naval blockade of the nation to enforce the UN trade embargo.
He said Haiti's military leaders 'would be sadly misguided if they think the United States has weakened its resolve'.
Senior US Congressman Charles Rangel called for US
military action in Haiti to preserve UN credibility. 'I think we've reached the end of diplomatic initiatives,' he said.
During the past week, a US Navy ship with 200 soldiers was forced to retreat from Haitian waters and a contingent of 51 Canadian police trainers left because of growing violence.
Gunmen have beaten and kidnapped journalists, threatened US diplomats and followed members of the UN civilian mission.