MIAMI, JAN. 7 -- A coup by an ally of ousted Haitian dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier was put down after 12 hours today when loyalist troops stormed the National Palace and arrested the plotters. Thirty-seven deaths were reported.

Roger Lafontant, the self-proclaimed leader of the Duvaliers' notorious private militia, staged the coup d'etat in the Haitian capital with a handful of rebel troops late Sunday. Lafontant had vowed never to allow the installation of a leftist priest, the Rev. Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who won Haiti's first free and peaceful presidential elections last month.

When Lafontant launched his insurrection, many Haitians feared that their nation's long-delayed transition to democracy would be aborted by violence once again. But the army's move, almost 12 hours later, gave them new hope that democracy could take root in the Hemisphere's poorest country.

After taking over the gleaming white, three-domed palace in downtown Port-au-Prince shortly before midnight, Lafontant forced the caretaker president, Ertha Pascal-Trouillot, to resign and claimed on state-run television that he had taken power "at the request of the armed forces and police."

But the army struck back at midday, unleashing a withering barrage of fire on the palace, then charging in to arrest Lafontant and his cohorts.

The 12-hour insurrection touched off a round of street violence, much of it directed at or stemming from Lafontant's followers, that left at least 37 people dead, according to news reports from the capital.

Twenty-six people died in violence around the headquarters of the Union for National Reconciliation, Lafontant's political party, according to state-run radio.

The independent Radio Metropole said protesters lynched at least seven suspected supporters of Duvalier, the president-for-life who fled from a mob to exile in France in 1986. The bodies of the seven were burned by placing flaming tires around their necks, the radio said.

The coup attempt was staged one month before the populist Aristide is to be installed as Haiti's first freely elected president.

When the attempt failed, jubilant Haitians celebrated in the streets of Port-au-Prince and Miami.

"Titid is the only chance we've got," said Jean Gaboton, 36, a Haitian taxi driver in Miami, using the diminutive Creole nickname that means Little Aristide. "Lafontant should be killed. If not, he'll keep making problems."

Aristide's inauguration is scheduled on the fifth anniversary ofvalier's flight from Haiti. Ever since the Roman Catholic priest won a landslide victory at the polls Dec. 16, there have been widespread expectations that Lafontant would strike back.

U.S. officials in Washington said they were elated by the army's action, noting that with Lafontant neutralized, Aristide's position was strengthened and his army support clearly demonstrated.

State Department deputy spokesman Richard Boucher said, "We applaud General {and Chief of Staff Herard} Abraham and the Haitian army for its strong action in support of a constitutional government. We also applaud President-elect Aristide for his radio appeal to the Haitian people in which he called for support of the constitution, and we admire the courage of President Trouillot.

"Today's action allows Haiti's democratic process to continue, with the inauguration Feb. 7 of Jean-Bertrand Aristide who was overwhelmingly elected as Haiti's new president on Dec. 16."

Ambassador Alvin P. Adams Jr. called Abraham at 5 a.m., Boucher said, and was informed that the army would issue a statement criticizing the coup and saying it would send troops to the palace.

A senior State Department official said Adams's call was intended "to make clear we fully support Trouillot's government and to find out what the army intended to do. Once we determined they intended to support Trouillot," the official said, "we offered our assistance" and put out a statement on "Haitian media" criticizing the coup.

The official said the embassy also talked to other nations to have them condemn the coup, "talked to the army and Aristide's people, and "acted as something of a go-between to make sure Aristide would get out the word so his supporters wouldn't misread the situation and think the army was backing Lafontant."

A 55-year-old obstetrician, Lafontant led the Ton-tons Macoutes, the dreaded Duvalierist militia that used terror, intimidation and assassination to bolster the 29-year reign of Jean-Claude Duvalier and his father, Francois "Papa Doc" Duvalier.

Lafontant fled the country in 1985, remaining in exile until last July, when he returned to run for president, defying a warrant for his arrest. But his candidacy was barred by Haiti's electoral council, and he sat out the campaign, bitterly criticizing it as a "carnival for foreigners."

To Lafontant and the country's tens of thousands of Duvalierists, Aristide's victory -- and his repeated promise to wash away the remnants of the nation's dictatorial past -- represented a threat to their personal safety and their business interests.

The Duvalierists' fear could be measured in the frequent, nearly desperate hints they gave that they would take action rather than permit their world to crumble around them.

"Attila will not enter the gates of Rome," Lafontant pledged in interviews both before and after the elections last month. He charged that Aristide was a communist, a label the president-elect disavows despite his leftist views.

Diplomats had expressed fears that despite Aristide's popular support -- he won nearly 70 percent of the votes cast -- Lafontant retained allies in Haiti's undisciplined army.

But in Lafontant's coup attempt, his violent assault on the palace was accomplished by just 12 to 16 soldiers, according to news reports.

When loyalist soldiers arrived to dislodge and arrest Lafontant, his troops apparently did not put up a fight. Pascal-Trouillot, the provisional president who was held captive for 10 hours, said that Lafontant hid in an elevator.

The army troops emerged from the palace with Lafontant in handcuffs and took him to army headquarters, radio broadcasts said. Pascal-Trouillot appeared on the palace balcony to wave at jubilant people in the streets below.

There were reports late today that Lafontant had been deported, but U.S. diplomats said he remained in army custody in the Haitian capital.

The independent Radio Haiti Inter broadcast a message from Aristide in which he congratulated the army, the people and the diplomatic corps for thwarting the attempted coup. He said the army would restore order and appealed to Haitians to "stand firm."

The army has played a key role in Haiti's moves toward democracy in the last year. The election campaign, which some analysts had predicted would be a violent replay of bloody 1987 elections, were marred by just one serious incident, a grenade attack at one of Aristide's rallies.

Haitians lauded the army for standing behind the democratic transition. "I am encouraged by the army reaction," said Johnny McCalla, director of the New York-based National Coalition for Haitian refugees.

Population: 6.2 million (1989 estimate). Most are black, but there is a minority mulatto population.

Religion: About 80 percent Roman Catholic. Most also believe in Voodoo.

Area: 10,700 square miles, about the size of Maryland.

Economy: Haiti is the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere. Its gross domestic product in 1987 was $2.2 billion. Per capita GDP was $372. Two-thirds of the population work in agriculture, forestry or fishing. About one-third of the country is arable. Coffee is the main cash crop. Main imports are manufactured goods, machinery, food and live animals.

Modern history: Colonized by France in the 17th century, Haiti became the first independent black republic in 1804. The country's recent history has been scarred by a string of coup attempts and violent riots since the death of dictator Francois "Papa Doc" Duvalier and the ousting of his son, "Baby Doc" Jean-Claude Duvalier, in 1986. He lives in France but loyalists remain in Haiti, including elements of his feared Ton-tons Macoute gunmen.

SOURCE: Reuter