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Last Updated: Friday, 2 January, 2004, 03:02 GMT
Clashes mar Haiti anniversary
Junior Desamord raises shackles during celebrations marking Haiti's 200th anniversary of independence from France
Haiti triumphed over slavery but now faces severe problems
Haiti's president has pledged to hold parliamentary elections this year, during a speech marking 200 years of independence from France.

Jean Bertrand Aristide gave no date for the poll, but promised a wide-ranging programme to help the poor.

Haiti became the world's first black republic and the first country in the western hemisphere to abolish slavery.

But anniversary celebrations have been marred by clashes between supporters and opponents of President Aristide.

The opposition - which disputes the results of the last parliamentary elections in 2000 - boycotted the event.

They also criticised a decision by South African President Thabo Mbeki to attend.

His official helicopter was shot at by during the celebrations.

Mr Mbeki was not present at the time, his spokesman Bheki Khumalo said.

Today is a day for celebrating freedom... from slavery and from Aristide
Rodney William
In a speech to mark the anniversary, President Aristide pledged to help the poor benefit from the country's independence.

He said Haiti could be strong if her people were united.

"The first black republic of the world is and remains the epicentre of liberty for blacks," he told the crowd.

Mr Mbeki told the anniversary event that Haiti's independence should be celebrated because it had dealt a deadly blow to the slave trade.

The country declared independence from France after a successful slave rebellion.

Poverty and dictatorship

But several people were injured in clashes during the celebrations, as both supporters and opponents of Mr Aristide gathered to hold demonstrations.

Thousands of people gathered and police fired tear gas and warning shots to disperse the crowd, reported the Associated Press news agency.

"Today is a day for celebrating freedom," said 33-year-old business owner Rodney William. "But for us, that means freedom from slavery and freedom from Aristide".

More than 20 people have been killed in various anti-government protests since September 2003.

For decades, Haiti's pride has been dented by poverty and dictatorship which have left it the poorest country in the Americas.

The US encouraged the leadership of President Aristide 10 years ago, but is now concerned that he may not have enough control of the provincial cities where most of the recent clashes have taken place.

During its 200 years of independence, Haiti has had 53 different leaders.

Twenty-one of them were overthrown and just eight survived a full term in power.

The present crisis in Haiti still reflects a country in turmoil.

The opposition wants President Aristide to resign as a pre-condition for any elections.

The BBC's Sean De Vries
"Haiti's bicentennial is fraught with a mixture of tension and violence"

In pictures: Haiti's birthday
01 Jan 04  |  Photo Gallery
Haiti protests marred by violence
12 Dec 03  |  Americas
Country profile: Haiti
08 Nov 03  |  Country profiles

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