PORT-AU-PRINCE, HAITI, JULY 5 -- The streets of Haiti's cities remained quiet but tense today as Haitians prepared to resume the antigovernment strike that has left at least 23 people dead since last Monday.
The violence, which began amid public protest at a government effort to take control of coming elections, stopped over the weekend as opposition leaders suspended the strike to let people work and buy necessities. But, with the strike due to resume Monday, public protest has broadened to include widespread demands that the military-led government resign.
One of few signs of protest today was a noise barrage at noon, in which drivers honked horns and residents banged pots. At a Catholic church in downtown Port-au-Prince, antigovernment emotions ran high as a leftist priest, Jean-Bertrand Aristides, told 2,000 worshipers to "pray for strength to continue the struggle for justice." Despite the relative calm this weekend, Haitians and foreigners here fear new violence Monday.
Key players in the conflict appeared to sharpen it with statements over the weekend, but the precise intentions of the government, military and opposition remained unclear. It was uncertain whether military commanders and political opposition leaders can or will control their forces in the street conflict that has pitted nervous soldiers against angry protesters.
Many Haitians interviewed today said they were uncertain how effective the strike will be or how the military will respond.
"I think we will have to just be careful and look before we go into the streets," said Jean, a middle-aged taxi driver who asked not to be identified further.
Haiti's Catholic bishops called for calm in a statement broadcast last night and this morning. While the bishops, who are spread across this country's political spectrum, avoided taking sides in the conflict, they appeared to criticize the military, whose troops have killed numerous unarmed civilians, some of whom were not protesting.
Haiti's independent elections commission, whose conflict with the government started the crisis, yesterday accused soldiers of killing two young boys playing in a Port-au-Prince street.
The Catholic bishops said in their statement replayed on a church-run radio station, "We protest energetically this blind use of murderous automatic weapons which wound or kill defenseless people.
"We demand . . . that justice be done for all victims of this violence," the bishops said. They called on all Haitians to "stop this shedding of blood."
This is Haiti's most serious political crisis since the collapse of the long dictatorship of the Duvalier family, forcing Jean-Claude Duvalier into exile in February 1986.
Since then, the three-man provisional government has moved this impoverished nation closer to democracy, winning voter approval of a constitution last March. The constitution set up an independent electoral commission to hold municipal elections in August and a presidential poll in November.
The provisional governing council, led by Lt. Gen. Henri Namphy, decreed late last month that it would control the elections directly, sparking the strike. The protest was intensified by a government attempt to dissolve an important labor federation that had been agitating for higher wages.
Although the government has rescinded its election decree and dissolution of the union, public anger over the killings of protesters by troops has broadened the protest.
Many Haitians, including prominent opposition leaders, are calling for the government to resign, but it has refused.
Over the weekend, top military commanders announced their "total support" for the government.