Port au Prince, Haiti(HIP)- Armed units of the Haitian National Police (PNH) entered the pro-Ariside slum of Bel Air as thousands of residents took to streets to demand the return of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Marchers defied a shutdown of the capital by the business community and threats issued by the former military. Heavy gunfire erupted as the police reportedly fired shots to disperse the crowd. The police were then forced to withdraw as unidentified gunmen returned fire from surrounding buildings in a thunderous volley. Haiti has been rocked by violence since September 30th after police opened fire on unarmed demonstrators demanding the return of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide and condemning political persecution of his Lavalas political party. Aristide was ousted last February 29th amid charges he was kidnapped by U.S. Marines and is living as guest in the Republic of South Africa.
Two demonstrators were killed on Sept. 30th and the U.S.-backed government claimed that the headless bodies of three policemen were later discovered. The identities of the headless policemen were released at a funeral held for them earlier this week. The bodies of the headless men were reportedly cremated before journalists and human rights groups were given an opportunity to perform an independent examination of the corpses to confirm the government's claims.
In a statement portraying Aristide's Family Lavalas party as terrorists, the Haitian Chamber of Commerce called for a National Day of Reflection today asking for all schools and businesses to stay closed and for all residents of Port au Prince to stay in their homes. The U.S. Embassy closed its doors as well in a gesture meant to symbolize their approval of the business community's initiative. Several U.S. citizens expressed their anger at the closure stating that it "left them defenseless" in the event they were required to evacuate Haiti in the face of mounting violence.
Tensions heightened in the capital as several pro-Aristide slums announced their intention to defy the shutdown and protest on the 10th anniversary of the ousted presidentâ€šs return to Haiti in 1994. Aristide was overthrown by Haiti's military in a brutal coup in September 1991and returned to Haiti on October 15, 1994 after Clinton committed 20,000 U.S. troops to â€œOperation Restore Democracy."
Aristide supporters had braced themselves for today's attacks after the U.S.-backed government and United Nationâ€šs forces allowed armed units of the former military to enter the capital unchallenged over the past two days. This has led to charges by Lavalas representatives of a â€œsecond coup" and UN complicity in allowing the former military to return to power in Haiti. Two trucks of former military opened fire on residents at Delmas 2 in the slum of La Saline this morning and could be seen setting up roadblocks on Route Frere.
Today's violence comes two days after the arrest of a Catholic priest, Father Gerard Jean-Juste, the government accused of trafficking in weapons and harboring gunmen in his parish. Human rights organizations and legal experts have condemned the arrest as "arbitrary" and an effort by the authorities to repress political dissent. Earlier this week, UN soldiers and Haitian police conducted numerous joint raids in several poor neighborhoods in the capital known for their support of Aristide. Hundreds have been arrested yet few weapons have been confiscated as the violence continues for a second straight week.
The morgue at the General Hospital issued an emergency call this afternoon stating that there was no longer space for new corpses and it had reached full capacity.