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Haiti Leader Visits Slum City's 'Freedom Fighters'
Haiti Leader Visits Slum City's 'Freedom Fighters'Mar 20, 2:32 pm ET

By Ibon Villelabeitia

GONAIVES, Haiti (Reuters) - Haiti's new prime minister flew on Saturday into the chaotic city where an armed revolt began six weeks ago and hailed as "freedom fighters" a ragtag gang that helped oust President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

Arriving in a U.S. Army Black Hawk helicopter -- escorted by a second Black Hawk and a twin-rotor Chinook -- Gerard Latortue landed on a soccer field in Gonaives to a raucous welcome by about 2,000 people.

The 69-year-old economist, named by a council of Haitians to take over after Aristide was driven into exile on Feb. 29 by the revolt and U.S. pressure, was handed a wooden key, smelling heavily of varnish, as he set foot in his hometown.

"(In the United States) they thought the people in Gonaives were thugs and bandits," Latortue told reporters in the impoverished Caribbean nation's fourth-largest city. "But they are freedom fighters."

The rebels in Gonaives, most of whom belonged to a street gang called "the Cannibal Army" that once supported Aristide, did not lay their arms at Latortue's feet as they had promised.

But the prime minister said their leaders again pledged to disarm when the time was right.

Rebel chief Guy Philippe, a former soldier and police commissioner who was in the reception committee, said his men could not disarm until public security was guaranteed.

"Today is a very important day for us. It officially marks the end of the hostilities," Philippe told Reuters.

"We want to hand in the guns but there is no police."

Latortue was driven through Gonaives -- a city that spawned a slave revolt that led to independence from France in 1804 -- in a tumultuous cavalcade. Thousands of people poured out of shacks to clap, chant and wave.

Mopeds and bicycles trailed the convoy, car horns blared and pigs and goats rooted through trash and dried sewage.

The two U.S. Army Black Hawks hovered overhead and French Legionnaires, who arrived in Gonaives on Friday as a multinational U.N.-sanctioned force began to restore order beyond the capital, patrolled the outskirts of the city of 200,000.

The prime minister's security was provided by police and rebel street soldiers dressed in suits and ties.


Latortue took the podium before thousands in the main square, thanked Gonaives for defeating "the dictator Aristide," and presented several members of his new Cabinet.

As he pointed to Interior Minister Herard Abraham, a former general who backs a rebel demand for the re-establishment of the Haitian army, people shouted, "Arrest Aristide."

Framed by a mural of Creole independence heroes, Latortue promised to build hospitals, highways and even a stadium and to bring drinkable water to the slum dwellers of Gonaives.

"Electricity too, we want telephones too," the crowd chanted back.

The gang leader who began the revolt with an attack on Gonaives' police station on Feb. 5, Buter Metayer, said before the ceremony his fight was over and he planned to take a vacation in the United States.

"I'm going to give him (Latortue) all the weapons we have in Gonaives," Metayer said.

"It is a happy day for Haiti," said Dorsavil Thilemon, 23. "We hope that peace and development will come to Gonaives. I hope we can all live together now."

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