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Hundreds of prisoners at large in Haiti attack

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti -- Haitian police yesterday were hunting for nearly 500 prisoners who escaped after an armed attack on the national penitentiary sparked a riot and left one guard dead.

Two prominent allies of the ousted president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who had been rushed to a secure location during the attack Saturday night, were returned to the prison, authorities said.

Guards had rushed former prime minister Yvon Neptune and former interior minister Jocelerme Privert to a secret location when the attack occurred and inmates began rioting, and the two were later turned over to UN soldiers, Damian Onses-Cardona, a spokesman for the UN peacekeeping mission, said.

''They were taken back to prison in UN vehicles," Onses-Cardona said yesterday. ''They insisted on returning to make clear they didn't try to escape."

Onses-Cardona said authorities were investigating whether the attack, which occurred as Aristide partisans prepare to mark the first anniversary of his Feb. 29 flight from the country, was aimed at freeing Neptune and Privert.

Ambassador Marcel Young of Chile denied reports that the two men had escaped and sought asylum from foreign embassies before being recaptured.

Young said he met with them Saturday and ''they were only concerned about their security. Once that was arranged, they asked to go back to the prison."

The two men are accused of orchestrating killings of Aristide opponents during a rebellion in the western town of Saint-Marc. Both men have said they are innocent. They are among dozens of Aristide officials and supporters detained since Aristide fled Haiti amid a three-week rebellion. None have been formally charged.

Foreign Minister Herard Abraham said in a radio address that 481 of more than 1,250 prisoners at the prison had escaped. Heavily armed men had attacked the prison, he said without elaboration, only adding that police were aggressively seeking fugitives.

Privert's wife, Ginette, was among dozens of people waiting outside the prison yesterday for information about their relatives.

''I haven't heard from him or seen him, so I don't know if he's OK," she said of her husband. ''I've been waiting three hours, and they still won't let me in."

Journalists were not allowed inside the prison. About 40 UN troops and 10 Haitian police officers guarded the main entrance.

Pierre Esperance of the National Coalition for Haitian Rights said his group toured the prison yesterday and verified Privert and Neptune were there, but the group was not allowed to interview the inmates.

Police told the coalition that two escaped prisoners had been caught, and Jacques Mathelier, a former delegate from Aristide's Lavalas Party, was among those still free, Esperance said.

''The government needs to investigate this attack because there had to be help from the inside to do this," Esperance said.

The attack began Saturday afternoon when three to four men dressed in black and armed with assault rifles drove up to the prison in a jeep and began firing into the air, touching off a brief gun battle with guards, witnesses said.

At least one guard was killed, said police spokeswoman Gessy Coicou. Bullet holes pockmarked the walls of the prison, which is in downtown Port-au-Prince behind the presidential National Palace, and spent ammunition littered the pavement.

In December, gunmen opened fire outside the prison and inmates living in overcrowded and unsanitary conditions rioted.

Prison authorities said seven prisoners were killed by other inmates, but one witness who escaped in the confusion alleged that guards had killed some prisoners.

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