Severe petrol shortage puts squeeze on Haiti: UN embargo causes a 'gasoline war' as the deadline for Aristide's return nears, writes Phil Davison in Port-au-Prince

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The Independent Online
LONG lines built up at petrol stations in the Haitian capital, Port-au-Prince, yesterday as the stand-off between supporters and opponents of Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the exiled President, turned into a 'gasoline war'.

Foreign diplomats said the vital petrol issue could trigger the crisis over Fr Aristide's return here next Saturday.

After reports that the big three foreign-owned distributors, Shell, Esso and Texaco, were cutting off supplies panic buying and hoarding began. As always, those with money, guns and influence sought to grab what was left.

An American woman photographer was ordered out of a petrol queue at gunpoint by members of the heavily armed Front for the Advancement and Progress of Haiti (Fraph) group, which appeared to have taken control of the pumps and was filling its own vehicles and drums.

The Fraph bills itself as a political party but is led by former members of the Duvalier family's old Tontons Macoute gunmen. It is trying to prevent Fr Aristide's return and is calling for the resignation of his Prime Minister, Robert Malval.

The group has been putting on a show of strength in recent days and has said Fr Aristide's return could lead to civil war. It is insisting on greater representation in the government but diplomats believe it is simply trying to oust Fr Aristide and retain the de facto street control its gunmen now enjoy.

A United States official told reporters yesterday that the Clinton administration would see any attempt by the military, or military- backed groups, to take control of petrol supplies as extremely serious. He said the US administration still looked on 30 October as the date for the President's return, although there are increasing signs here that his opponents will force a delay.

No one here knows whether Fr Aristide, Haiti's first democratically-elected president, who remained in power for only seven months in 1991 before a bloody coup, will attempt to return.

Sources close to the UN special envoy, Dante Caputo, say an anti-Aristide lobby in the US, which bills Fr Aristide as a radical leftist, looks increasingly like delaying his return. Old CIA reports from Fr Aristide's years as a fiery anti-Duvalierist, describing him as unbalanced, have increasingly been circulating in Haiti and in the US.

There was some confusion as to whether Mr Malval, backed by the US, had asked the oil companies to cut off supplies or whether they had taken the decision. The US official said their refusal to deliver even supplies they already had, before the UN embargo, fell within the framework of the UN decision. Mr Malval met representatives of the oil companies and their trade unions yesterday to discuss the petrol supply and the legal implications of holding back stocks.

'October 30 is October 30,' the US official said. 'That is the date in the (New York) Governor Island agreement', the July accord brokered by the UN for Fr Aristide's return and the retirement of Raul Cedras, the army commander, and Port-au-Prince's powerful police chief, Michel Francois. Both men have since refused to stand down, insisting that an amnesty law first be passed that would pardon military, police and civilians' 'political crimes' since the coup in 1991.

Such a law would have to be passed by parliament but the House of Deputies has been unable to meet in the tense climate. Pro-Aristide supporters fear for their lives after last week's murder of the Justice Minister, Guy Malary. The tension has led to the postponement of Malary's funeral, which could spark further violence.

Another pro-Aristide deputy, Samuel Milord, was still missing last night after being kidnapped from his home late on Wednesday. Radio reports yesterday said a headless corpse had been found in the capital but there was as yet no indication that it was Mr Milord's body.

'We are outraged by this, yet another human rights violation,' the US official said yesterday of the kidnapping. 'It's part of the intolerable human rights situation continuing in this country. It's intolerable to the US and to the vast majority of people in Haiti.'

US diplomats here yesterday issued a complete list of Haitians whose US assets had been frozen and whose visas had been revoked as part of President Bill Clinton's measures against the Duvalierists who have returned to de facto control. The list included General Cedras, Mr Francois and the two leaders of the Fraph, Louis Judel Chambelain and Emmanuel Constant.

The HMS Active, a Type-21 Frigate on regular duty in the Caribbean, was heading for the Haitian coast yesterday to join United States and Canadian naval vessels enforcing the UN blockade. French and Argentinian vessels are also on their way.

(Photograph omitted)