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Death toll from Jeanne soars to 1,970 in Haiti

GONAIVES, Haiti — The death toll from floods unleashed by Tropical Storm Jeanne rose sharply to nearly 2,000 people, with many still missing, as officials said they found hundreds more bodies in Haiti's devastated northwestern region.

Officials, who had previously put the toll at 1,550 dead and about 900 missing, could not immediately provide specifics on the higher toll announced Sunday night but said hundreds more bodies were found in recent days in areas outside the hard-hit town of Gonaives.

The new toll stands at 1,970 dead and 884 missing, a spokesman for Haiti's civil protection agency said.

An estimated 300,000 Haitians were left homeless, most in Gonaives, by floods unleashed by Jeanne more than two weeks ago. Officials said most of the missing can be presumed dead — washed out to sea or buried in debris.

On Sunday, residents of Gonaives brought in two emaciated men found semiconscious on the ground to a clinic run by Argentine U.N. peacekeepers. Doctors said it appeared the two hadn't eaten in several days and had psychological trauma — one because he lost relatives in the floods.

The other, 40-year-old Jacques Agelus Faustin, was found collapsed under a mango tree.

"We all thought he was dead," said Soupon Jean-Paul, the friend who found him. "I wasn't even looking for him at the time."

U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson stopped at the U.N. peacekeepers' clinic Sunday during a visit to Gonaives.

"There's no question we have to figure out how to rebuild Gonaives," Thompson said, adding that would involve creating jobs through public works projects.

Last week, President Bush asked Congress for $50 million for storm-hit Caribbean countries, about half planned for Haiti.

Before leaving Thompson met interim Prime Minister Gerard Latortue and announced a donation of $235,000 worth of antibiotics, syringes, latex gloves and other medical supplies to restock Gonaives' hospital.

Meanwhile, gunfire erupted in a Port-au-Prince slum teeming with loyalists of ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide on Sunday, sending people scattering following days of political clashes that have left at least 14 dead.

Residents said men fired into the air, stole food from market vendors and burned tires in the slum of La Saline.

The unrest came a day after police arrested Haiti's Senate president and two other pro-Aristide politicians following a six-hour standoff in a radio station.

Latortue said the three were arrested on suspicion of orchestrating violence that erupted Thursday during protests demanding Aristide's return. Among those killed in clashes were four policemen, three of whom were beheaded after being shot to death.

But he said one of the politicians arrested, former Sen. Gerard Gilles, would be freed shortly after investigators determined he wasn't involved.

Latortue said the police killings were part of a new offensive by pro-Aristide gangs that they have dubbed "Operation Baghdad."

"You've heard about Baghdad in the media. Every time they catch a Westerner they cut off his head," Latortue told reporters.

"What is happening here ... is a climate of terror that resembles the climate of terror that we had in the four months preceding Jean-Bertrand Aristide's departure," he said.

The pro-Aristide politicians, who insisted they were innocent, were led out in handcuffs from the offices of Radio Caraibes Saturday night after a judge entered to negotiate their surrender.

Justice Minister Bernard Gousse said police found illegal weapons in one of their cars — an Uzi submachine gun and T65 assault rifle. "They're people who are barbaric and violent," he told reporters on Saturday.

Pro-Aristide groups criticized the arrests, saying police didn't have a warrant and had planted the weapons. They also say police and gangsters have opened fire on Aristide supporters, killing several people.

A 15-year-old boy was among two shot dead by police Friday during a pro-Aristide march, according to the independent group Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti.

Latortue denied any wrongdoing by authorities, saying the government is dedicated to respecting human rights and "life of all Haitians."

Aristide, now in exile in South Africa, has accused U.S. agents of ousting him on Feb. 29 amid a bloody rebellion — a charge the U.S. government denies.

Aristide's Lavalas Family party on Thursday began three days of commemoration of the 1991 coup that toppled Aristide's first government. They demanded an end to "the occupation" and "the invasion" by foreign troops — referring to the U.S.-led force that followed Aristide's ouster and the U.N. peacekeepers who have taken over since June.

U.N. peacekeepers have been criticized for not doing more to control the violence. U.N. officials say they are doing the best they can with 3,000 peacekeepers on the ground and some 750 of them tied up dealing with the aftermath of the floods.

Associated Press reporter Stevenson Jacobs, in Port-au-Prince, contributed to this report.