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Haitians emerge to work, or party

Opponents of Aristide celebrate in front of the presidential palace in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Monday.
Opponents of Aristide celebrate in front of the presidential palace in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Monday.

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PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (Reuters) -- After days in the cross-fire between government armed gangs and rebels, many Haitians emerged from their homes on Monday to try and return to business as usual -- or just celebrate in the streets.

Most barricades were lifted the day after ex-President Jean-Bertrand Aristide quit and fled the poorest nation in the Americas. The looting and shootings of the day before had mostly disappeared. Burnt cars and tires littered roads and at street corners people huddled over radios for the latest news.

"Thank God I can leave my house now. I've kept my children at home for a week now. Now it's time for them to go back to school," Saint Hiler Venus said outside a presidential palace that is now guarded by U.S. Marines.

Around the mother of two, thousands of people marched and danced in the streets as a convoy of armed rebels, riding along with police officials, arrived. An uprising by these rebels in northern Haiti helped spark Aristide's downfall.

"Alleluia, now they've arrived, let's judge Aristide," the crowds shouted.

Along the streets, residents put up two fingers in a V for victory salute. Others put up three fingers, joking that Aristide only managed to stay in office for three years of his five-year term.

The pro-Aristide "chimeres" -- the balaclava-clad armed gangs who inspired fear in the population and who have ruled the capital for much of the last week -- appeared to have disappeared off the streets.

'No more dictatorship'

No U.S. soldiers took their place, staying instead mostly at the airport and national palace. Haitian police, the armed rebels and local vigilante groups, including businessmen riding shotgun in pickups, maintained order.

A man ran though the crowd outside the presidential palace waving a dead rat in the air - in defiance of the well-known Creole slogan of the chimeres that translated roughly as "not even rats defecate on the streets without our permission."

Another man with a plaster on his head for what he said was a chimere machete wound, ran through the street shouting, "No more dictatorship."

Some U.S security forces looked on at the demonstration. As the crowds grew into the thousands, they fell back to behind the palace gates.

The streets, empty in the morning, got busier during the day. The colorful old wagons used as buses were packed with people going to work.

Around the capital curious onlookers stood near smashed-up banks, burnt-down gas stations and looted grocery stores. Boys sold watered-down gasoline in plastic buckets by the road.

Pickup trucks with heavily armed police dressed in civilian clothes sped around the city, some searching for chimeres gangs.

A crowd gathered around a dead teen-ager, shot and killed by police, witnesses said, after he tried on Sunday to loot a gas station. Nearly 24 hours later, he still lay on the sidewalk in the middle of stinking garbage. Locals said he was 13 or 14.

Celebrations were muted in some slums. Near the presidential palace, one poor district still had barricades. In one pro-Aristide stronghold, locals glared and men in pickups shooed away reporters who tried to enter.

A few blocks away, a young woman with an baseball cap with the design of a U.S. flag sounded a cautionary note in a country that has suffered through dozens of coups in its 200-year independence.

"We are happy today but we are still afraid, because the chimeres still have guns in their hands," said the woman, Octilene, who like many Haitians is too afraid of reprisals to give her last name.

Copyright 2004 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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