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Haitian city surrounded by rebels

President Aristide supporters prepare for battle in Cap Haitien

Police patrol in the capital
Police patrol Port-au-Prince during a march against Aristide.

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(Contains graphic images of violence) Rebels led by formerly exiled paramilitaries take over more cities in Haiti. CNN's Lucia Newman reports
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Former Haitian paramilitaries return from exile to assist rebels fighting President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.
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Should the United States intervene in Haiti?
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PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (CNN) -- Police and armed supporters of embattled Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide manned barricades in Cap Haitien Wednesday, fearing rebels who have taken over other towns were headed their way.

The rebels have cut off Haiti's second largest city, on the north coast, from much of the rest of the poverty-stricken Caribbean country, the Red Cross reported Wednesday. Humanitarian aid sent after floods in December remains on the docks in the capital, Port-au-Prince, the relief agency said.

The Red Cross estimates that more than 50 people have been killed since the rebellion first erupted in Gonaives February 5.

Aristide has faced criticism from opponents at home and abroad since his election in 2000, which observers called fraudulent. Opposition parties accuse his supporters of using violence to intimidate them.

Former Aristide supporters have joined with their once sworn enemies -- paramilitary and military leaders who had supported the former military dictatorship -- to oust Aristide. These forces returned from exile in the neighboring Dominican Republic just a few days ago and are believed to be heavily armed.

The Aristide government has called the uprising a "coup" and the rebels "terrorists" and has appealed for international aid, but none was immediately offered.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said Tuesday that Aristide must move forward on commitments to reform his government and take effective steps to end violence before expecting other nations to intervene.

"Much of the violence that we see now is being created by the gangs that were once aligned with the Aristide government," Boucher said. "Without that factor, Haiti would be much closer to the rule of law and farther away from gang violence. So it's critical for the actors who supported these groups and who supported this violence to be part of ending it."

Discontent has grown in Haiti, home to 8 million people, since Aristide's party swept the legislative elections in 2000. Opposition politicians refuse to participate in new elections unless the president steps down, but Aristide insists he will stay until his term ends in February 2006.

Aristide, a priest who preached revolution to Haiti's poor, swept 1990 elections to become the country's first freely elected leader. He was ousted in a coup in 1991 and was restored to power when the United States sent 20,000 troops to Haiti in 1994.

Nearly 40,000 Haitians fled the country after the 1991 coup. Many of those risked death to attempt the 600-mile passage to Florida in small, overcrowded boats.

Aristide disbanded the army in 1995. In its place, the country has a 5,000-member police force that is outnumbered and outgunned by the rebels in outlying posts.

The rebels are thought to number no more than 100 in Gonaives. But they repelled a police attack to retake the city last week in fighting that killed 30 people, mostly officers, according to the Haitian Red Cross.

Senator urges intervention

Florida Sen. Bob Graham Monday urged the Bush administration to intervene in Haiti to prevent another refugee crisis.

"Inaction can no longer be our policy," said Graham, a former Democratic presidential candidate. "To do so will ensure that Haiti is ruled by thugs and criminals."

Graham said the United States should work with an international military or police force to restore order.

"If we can send military forces to Liberia -- 3,000 miles away -- we certainly can act to protect our interests in our own back yard," he said.

U.S. and European Union officials have called for Aristide's government to settle with his opponents. The same officials have condemned the violence on both sides.

The Organization of American States, the United States, Canada and French-speaking nations back a peace effort by the Caribbean Community. But U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said there was "no enthusiasm" in the United States or Caribbean countries to step into the spreading conflict in Haiti.

Under the Caribbean Community plan, Haiti must comply with OAS resolutions regarding Haiti; rules must be negotiated for demonstrations and the release of political detainees; enjoyment of fundamental freedoms and the effectiveness of police must be ensured; strong-arm groups must be disarmed; and both the government and opposition parties must support an independent electoral commission.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan on Tuesday expressed "extreme concern" about the uprising. He said he may have some announcements on the situation in the French-speaking Caribbean nation in the next few days.

CNN's Lucia Newman contributed to this report.

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