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'Alternative' president in Haiti fears arrest, goes into hiding

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — The head of Haiti's opposition alliance and three other government opponents went into hiding Friday, claiming some supporters of newly elected President Jean-Bertrand Aristide want to kill them.

Opposition leader Gerard Gourgue, a 75-year-old schoolmaster who declared himself an "alternative" president last month, disappeared from public view a day after the Senate passed a resolution calling for his immediate arrest.

Pro-Aristide protesters have staged violent riots for days, urging Gourgue's arrest on subversion charges. At least three people have died and scores have been injured since March 14.

On Tuesday, Aristide supporters attacked the school that Gourgue operates, throwing firebombs and opening fire on the building while Gourgue, his family and 200 schoolchildren were inside. No one was injured inside the school.

"This political persecution has to stop," Gourgue told The Associated Press on Friday, saying he feared for his life. He spoke by phone before going into hiding.

Pro-Aristide militants set tires on fire and blocked access to Leogane, a city 22 miles from Port-au-Prince, on Friday. In Gonaives, 56 miles from the capital, an opposition leader's house was stoned Thursday night, said Ernst Colon, who went into hiding with Gourgue. No injuries were reported.

The pro-Aristide militants say they won't stop until Gourgue is arrested, and the justice and interior ministers have indicated he would be arrested soon. The government has not issued an arrest warrant.

The U.S. Embassy said Friday it would "strongly condemn" any arrest of party leaders for "exercising their rights under the Haitian constitution to assemble peacefully and express their political opinions."

Haiti's government says that because Gourgue refers to his opposition alliance as an "alternative government," he is in violation of the constitution. Aristide has condemned the violent demonstrations but said there cannot be two governments in Haiti.

Gourgue says he only heads a figurative government and that Aristide's electoral victory last year was unconstitutional.

The standoff stems from last year's parliamentary elections, which gave Aristide's Lavalas Family party a majority of seats in the Senate. The 15-party alliance that Gourgue heads, Convergence, said the vote was fraudulent and called for immediate new elections.

The Organization of American States said the election results were questionable and that 10 contested Senate seats should have gone to a second round of voting.

Aristide's government recently proposed to shorten the terms of office and hold new elections. Aristide also has offered the opposition a place in the government, but opposition leaders refused, demanding new elections.

Gourgue and the three other opposition leaders — Colon, Sauvuer Pierre Etienne and Paul Denis — said they fear pro-Aristide militants more than being arrested by the police.

"They want to kill us," Etienne said.

Gourgue, a human-rights attorney who was a presidential candidate in 1987 before the military halted elections, said arresting him would hurt Aristide's credibility.

Since he won a second term in a presidential election last November after five years out of power, Aristide has been trying to regain the trust of the international community, which halted millions of dollars in aid amid the concerns over the results of the legislative elections in May.