Haitians decide to give war a chance: Signs are growing that opponents of the military regime are turning to violence, Patrick Cockburn writes from Port-au-Prince

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'WE GOT within 25 metres of the front of the cave when a sentry saw us and there was a three-hour gun battle with the terrorists,' said Nelio St Cyr, a Haitian security official. The fight near the village of Le Pretre on 3 February is a sign that opponents of the military regime, frustrated by failure to restore President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, are organising guerrilla groups.

The incident began when Haitian troops based in Les Cayes, south-west Haiti, got a tip-off that shots had been heard near Le Pretre. A 12-man patrol was sent out. After three hours of shooting the unit fell back. The army denies any casualties, while guerrilla sources say that six soldiers died. When the troops returned later, reinforced by soldiers from Les Cayes, they found the cave empty. Nelio St Cyr, local representative of the Interior Ministry, said the guerrillas, whom he says numbered 40, escaped through a side tunnel and left behind 'three M-1 rifles, training equipment and provisions'.

Villagers in Le Pretre largely confirm - while denying they knew guerrillas were in the area - the army account. They also point to eight houses in the village burnt by soldiers, who said the owners collaborated with terrorists.

Beside the track which passes through Le Pretre is the burnt remains of a house. In a whisper a nervous young man said he supported an uprising in favour of President Aristide, elected in December 1990 and overthrown by the army in September 1991.

Is this the beginning of a guerrilla movement? Since late last year, when General Raoul Cedras and Colonel Michel Francois, the Haitian military leaders, repulsed efforts by the US and the UN to secure the peaceful return of President Aristide, the regime's opponents have said they have no alternative but to fight. 'Guerrilla war is the only way now,' said a priest in Port-au-Prince.

Some of this is wishful thinking. In the past, death-squads and informers enabled governments in the capital to keep a grip on the countryside, where five out of seven million Haitians live. Bill O'Neill, an experienced human-rights lawyer working with the UN in Port- au-Prince, said the military have a record of concocting stories about terrorism to justify repression.

But the main details of the shoot- out at Le Pretre, the first armed clash since the coup, are confirmed by both peasants and army. Nor is there any doubt about the despair and incipient revolt in this and other villages as a result of the embargo on Haiti. One farmer said kerosene for lamps - essential for light, because there is no electricity - costs five times what it did. The man in charge of Le Pretre clinic said he had treated '500 cases of malnutrition compared to a handful in normal times'.

Haitian soldiers normally do not require much of a pretext for brutality. In Le Pretre and the nearby town of Chantal, soldiers made 12 arrests. In Les Cayes a shopkeeper who had gone to farm land he owned near Chantal said he was accused by police of buying machetes for terrorists and was savagely beaten in the local barracks.

Opponents of the junta may also feel unarmed resistance is becoming too dangerous. This is confirmed by an incident in Port-au- Prince on the night before the fighting in Le Pretre. Thirteen young men, once politically active in the Cite Soleil slum in support of President Aristide, were living in a villa in the Sarthe area of the city, where they fled after police ordered them to join a pro-government paramilitary group, leave the area or be killed. They moved, but on the night of 2 February soldiers shot in the front door of their house. The men appear - judging by blood stains - to have tried to run out of the back of the house, where more soldiers were waiting. In the yard beyond there are six dark patches of dried blood; the walls are pitted with bullet holes fired at close range. The UN believes at least seven men, possibly 12, were killed.

The soldiers do not seem to have paid attention to books and papers half-hidden by old clothes in the forecourt of a house next door. Some are the typical possessions of a Haitian student; other notes are more political. There is the stamp of the 'National Assembly of Militants for the Liberation of Haiti', with two clapsed hands in chains. The men appear to have been setting up a revolutionary organisation. Unlike those at Le Pretre, there is no sign they were armed. 'Incidents like Le Pretre will become more common,' said a priest in Port-au-Prince. 'This is a corrupt country and you can always buy guns from the army.'

(Photograph and map omitted)