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Peacekeepers roll though Haitian capital amid fears of violence on Aristide anniversary

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — U.N. peacekeepers in armored vehicles rolled through nearly deserted streets Friday in Haiti's capital, where shops were closed amid fears of violence on the 10th anniversary of ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide's return from his first exile.

Burning tires smoked in Bel Air, a slum stronghold of Aristide loyalists who barricaded streets with wooden market stands and debris. Residents said gunshots rang out occasionally.

Aristide's backers are demanding his return to the Caribbean country from his current exile in South Africa as they mark his restoration to power in 1994 through the intervention of 20,000 U.S. troops who ended three years of brutal military rule.

Business leaders called for a "day of protest against terrorism" Friday following two weeks of shootouts and beheadings that have killed at least 48 people. Many Haitians heeded the call for a shutdown, staying home while banks, stores and gas stations were locked up. Police stood watch at intersections.

U.N. peacekeepers have taken over for the U.S. Marines who arrived Feb. 29, the day Aristide fled a rebellion by former soldiers of the army that ousted him in 1991 and that he disbanded in 1995.

Heavily armed ex-soldiers based in Port-au-Prince said Thursday that reinforcements had been arriving from all over the country to help end two weeks of shootouts and beheadings in which at least 48 people have been killed.

"We are mobilizing, we have started working, carrying out the weapons inspections ourselves, addressing security problems in the city," former Maj. Remissainthe Ravix told Associated Press Television News.

Just before sunset Thursday, the central neighborhood of Poste Marchand was besieged by men firing gunshots into the air and burning cars as drivers and pedestrians scattered.

A glassy-eyed man holding a bottle of rum stood across the road from an incinerated white Jeep: "That was my car," he said, just blocks from the National Palace guarded by U.N. peacekeepers in armored cars.

Earlier Thursday, officials reported Aristide militants rampaged in Delmas neighborhood, firing into the air and threatening people with machetes.

The United States urged the departure of all nonessential personnel and family members working at its embassy in Port-au-Prince, which was shut Friday. The State Department also upgraded its travel warning for Haiti, saying police are ineffective and peacekeepers are not fully deployed.

It warned against "the potential for looting; the presence of intermittent roadblocks set by armed gangs or by the police; and the possibility of random violent crime, including kidnapping, carjacking and assault."

The ex-soldiers and Haiti's business leaders have accused U.N. peacekeepers sent to stabilize the country in June of being ineffective.

Haiti's Chamber of Commerce criticized a "flagrant paradox in the merciless struggle against terrorism of the great powers of the world and ... the surprising inadequacy of how international troops are deployed in Haiti."

With fewer than half the 8,000 troops promised, the Brazilian-led force is overstretched in this nation of 8 million, and ex-soldiers continue to hold sway over much of the countryside.

Brazil's Foreign Minister Celso Amorim said the force urgently needs reinforcements. "We have 3,200, and still lack many," he told reporters in Brasilia on Thursday. Some 200 Spanish sailors are expected to arrive this month and China is sending 130 police trained in riot control.

Interim Prime Minister Gerard Latortue said elections planned for next year are Haiti's only hope.

"We call on the citizens to join our movement, our effort to fight against terrorism, and also to continue our democratic process," Latortue told a news conference. "The only way we can all win is via elections."

The violence has disrupted a massive effort to feed survivors of Tropical Storm Jeanne in the northwest city of Gonaives. The storm last month killed some 1,900 people and left another 900 missing and some 200,000 homeless.

The U.N. World Food Program's Anne Poulsen said 113 containers of relief food for Gonaives was blocked at Port-au-Prince port for lack of workers, and a road convoy was unable to leave Thursday because peacekeepers assigned to escort it were busy patrolling the capital.

Meanwhile, human rights activists criticized the government for jailing dozens of Aristide supporters, including the Rev. Gerard Jean-Juste, who was detained at Saint Claire Church by a squad including masked officers, on suspicion he harbored gangsters, officials said.

Other Aristide allied behind bars include former Prime Minister Yvon Neptune and two legislators held on suspicion of masterminding violence — Senate President Yvon Feuille and Roudy Herivaux. They have not been charged.

Haiti's latest crisis erupted when Aristide supporters demonstrated Sept. 30 to demand his return from exile in South Africa and an end to "the occupation" by foreign troops. Police reportedly shot and killed two protesters, and the next day three police were found beheaded.