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U.S. Marines say they killed one gunman at weekend demonstration

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PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — U.S. Marines shot and killed a gunman during an outbreak of gunfire at a weekend demonstration by Haitians celebrating the ouster of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a spokesman said Monday.

The gunfire occurred during an anti-Aristide march Sunday, prompting the Marines to return fire in the first armed action of their week-old mission to stabilize Haiti.

At least six other people were killed and more than 30 wounded in the worst bloodshed since Aristide fled Haiti on Feb. 29 and U.S. and French peacekeepers arrived. The death toll rose to seven after one of the wounded died overnight.

Chief rebel leader Guy Philippe, who said the attack never would have happened if his men had not been asked to disarm, warned they would take up weapons again if peacekeepers don't force Aristide supporters to put down theirs.

Also on Monday, Aristide declared from his African exile that he was still president of Haiti and urged "peaceful resistance" in his homeland.

Sunday's demonstration, billed as a "victory march," began with a few hundred people in the capital's Petionville suburb, with Haitian police in the lead. Bringing up the rear were U.S. Marines in five Humvees mounted with machine guns and two truckloads of French troops.

Pro-Aristide militants said they, too, would march, and a confrontation seemed inevitable.

As the number of protesters swelled to thousands, the peacekeepers got hemmed in.

The marchers ended up on the vast Champs de Mars plaza in front of the National Palace and chanted that Aristide stand trial for alleged corruption and killings committed by his armed militants.

Several witnesses said they saw Aristide militants open fire from the roof of the Rex movie theater across the plaza.

U.S. Marine Col. Charles Gurganus said gunfire broke out on the northeast corner of the plaza and several people were wounded before Marines spotted two gunmen. When the gunmen tried to attack the Marines, the troops shot and killed one of them, he said, adding that he did not know what happened to the other man.

Asked how he knew the man killed was a gunman, Gurganus said: "He had a gun, and he was shooting at Marines. That's what I call a gunman."

No Marines were wounded.

Aristide fled under pressure from a popular rebellion and officials from the United States and France and was flown to Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic, on a plane arranged by Washington.

In his first news conference in exile, Aristide insisted he was still president.

"I am the democratically elected president and I remain so. I plead for the restoration of democracy" in Haiti, Aristide told reporters in Bangui.

He also repeated that the United States forced him from power — allegations that have been denied by Secretary of State Colin Powell and other Bush administration officials.

"It was in fact a political kidnapping," Aristide said. "This political kidnapping unfortunately opened the road to an occupation."

He urged "peaceful resistance."

The number of U.S. troops in Haiti increased over the weekend to more than 1,600, including roughly 1,500 Marines, said a defense official in Washington, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

Angry survivors of Sunday's violence accused the U.S. and French troops in the peacekeeping force of not preventing the attack.

"The peacekeepers were nowhere near where the shooting was," said Alma Coastal, 31, who was shot twice in the left shoulder.

French commander Col. Daniel Leplatois defended his troops, saying: "We're not able to secure the lives of all of the demonstrators."

Aristide supporters said they had canceled their march because peacekeepers had not promised the same level of security they gave their opponents. A pro-Aristide rally was instead planned for Monday.

"The Americans are only here to protect those who helped oust Aristide," said Ednar Ducoste, 23. "If we had guns, we would be fighting against them right now."

Prime Minister Yvon Neptune said the Marines abided by "rules of engagement (that) permit that they use proportional force."

Neptune — an Aristide appointee whom protesters also want tried — ordered police to "start disarming all who carry illegal weapons."

Many of the victims were shot with high-velocity bullets from weapons like M-16s and M-14s, said Dr. Ronald Georges. But Gurganus said the "shots sounded like they were from handguns."

Wailing victims flooded the Canape Vert hospital where Georges works, and blood covered the floors of the two operating rooms.

Among the dead was Spanish TV correspondent Ricardo Ortega. Dozens were injured, including photographer Michael Laughlin, 37, who works for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. He was shot in the face and shoulder but was in stable condition.

Doctors lacking supplies struggled to treat the injured despite the delivery of emergency supplies via a French air force helicopter.

On the political front, three top candidates for prime minister were interviewed Monday by the recently appointed Council of Sages, which said it would decide by Tuesday. The premier would form a transitional government from Aristide's Lavalas party and an opposition coalition.

The candidates are:

— Businessman Smarck Michel, who was Aristide's prime minister in 1994-95 but resigned over differences in economic policy.

— Lt. Gen. Herard Abraham, probably the only Haitian army officer to voluntarily surrender power to a civilian, allowing the 1990 transition that led to Haiti's first free elections, which Aristide won in a landslide.

— Gerard Latortue, a former U.N. official and an international business consultant who was foreign minister in 1988 to former President Leslie Manigat.

Also on Monday, hundreds of looters ransacked the industrial park near Haiti's airport, carrying away boxes and plastic bags of goods on their heads half a mile from the terminal where U.S. Marines are based.

Aristide was a wildly popular slum priest when he became Haiti's first freely elected leader in 1990. But he lost support after being re-elected in 2000. Haitians said he failed to improve their lives, condoned corruption and used police and armed supporters to attack political opponents.

AP writer Peter Prengaman contributed to this story from Port-au-Prince.