Haiti's second city attacked by rebel gangs

 

 Haiti's second-largest city Cap-Haitien was attacked by rebel forces today as groups opposed to President Jean-Bertrand Aristide ramped up a two-week armed insurgency.

A spokesman for the World Food Programme said its office in Cap-Hatien reported gunfights in the streets and rumors that the airport of the northern city of 500,000 people had been captured by rebels.

"There's shooting all around in the streets and there are rumors the airport has been taken," the spokesman said.

 Last night, President Aristide agreed to a peace plan put forward by US-led foreign mediators to try to end an armed revolt that has capped months of political tension.

 There was no word whether the opposition would agree to the proposal by the foreign delegation, which was in Port-au-Prince on an urgent mission to try to broker a solution to the crisis in the poorest country in the Americas.

Mr Aristide had agreed to the same plan, which would involve setting up a broad-based advisory council to select a new, neutral prime minister and a new Cabinet, in talks with Caribbean Community, or Caricom, nations last month.

 The opposition rejected the deal at that time, saying they doubted  Mr Aristide would implement the reforms and insisting that the president resign.

Even if the political opposition does accept the plan this time, it is not at all clear that would be enough to halt the rebels, who are intent on ousting the president.

 Mr Aristide, a former parish priest who was first elected in 1990, was once seen as a champion of democracy in Haiti after decades of dictatorships but now is accused of autocratic and thuggish politics.

 Months of street protests, frequently attacked by armed Aristide loyalists, erupted into full revolt on February 5th when an armed gang that once supported Mr Aristide kicked police out of the city of Gonaives. The rebellion spread through northwest and central Haiti and has killed more than 50 people, including over 20 police.

 Foreigners have fled the country on the advice of their governments and the United States ordered some of its embassy staff to leave Haiti. "It is unsafe to remain in Haiti in view of the deteriorating security situation," the State Department said in a statement, ordering family members and nonessential personnel at the embassy in Port-au-Prince to leave.

 The delegation of US, Canadian, French and Caricom officials were meeting with Mr Aristide's political opponents yesterday after securing the president's agreement to the plan.

 The mediation focused on brokering a deal between Mr Aristide and the opposition - business leaders, politicians and civil activists dismissed by the president as a wealthy mulatto elite virulently opposed to Haiti being run by its poor, black majority.