PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti--Mobs rioted, buildings were burned and Jean-Claude Duvalier, president-for-life, imposed a state of siege yesterday and told the people of his impoverished land that he was in control, "firm as a monkey's tail."
He pledged to rectify the "unequal and shocking" distribution of wealth. Most Haitians earn less than $150 a year.
Four hours before making the promise in an eight-minute radio and television speech from the gleaming-white National Palace, he rode through the city in one of his bulletproof limousines with a heavy military guard.
Rioters ran through downtown Port-au-Prince in the morning, building street barricades. Police used clubs and opened fire on them.
The General Hospital and witnesses reported at least five people killed in the capital yesterday and 61 wounded, 16 by gunshots.
Building were reported burning in the towns of Gonaives, Petit-Gonaives, Les Cayes and Cap Haitien.
A witness said police drove people off the streets with clubs and tear gas in Cap Haitien, a north-coast port that has been a focus of growing protest against the Duvalier dynasty on this Caribbean island.
Rioting in Port-au-Prince appeared to be quelled by midday. The streets filled with police, troops in battle gear and the Volunteers for National Security militia.
The militia succeeded the Tonton Macoute, the notorious personal army created by Jean-Claude's father, Francois "Papa Doc" Duvalier, from whom he inherited the presidency-for-life in 1971.
The State Department said the more than 15,000 Americans in Haiti were safe, but did not express support for Duvalier and indicated that half the $51 million in U.S. aid Haiti was to receive this year may be held back because of human rights violations.
Rioting was spurred by rumors sweeping across Haiti that Duvalier's government had fallen and he had fled the country.
President Reagan's spokesman, Larry Speakes, told reporters just that yesterday morning. The White House retracted the statement later, citing "conflicting reports."
Duvalier said in a radio broadcast after the Speakes statement: "The president is here, strong, firm as a monkey's tail. My dear friends, because of wild rumors and nonsense circulated by good-for-nothings for some times [sic] now, I'm obliged to take to the streets."
Haitians said the portly, 34-year-old president took his ride through the streets at about 9 a.m.
In his address at 1 p.m., he called for national unity to "restore peace and normal functioning of institutions," and said he would work for the good of the people despite "the wave of violence that has spread through the provinces."
"I recognize that the per-capita income is very low, that the distribution of wealth is unequal and shocking," he said, speaking in French. "I solemnly vow to present a new plan for society under which all resources will be kept under strict control. It is already designed by planners and will be presented to you soon.
"I understand your impatience, your legitimate aspirations to improve your standard of living, but we should remember that disorder and anarchy could only aggravate the situation," he said, adding that he invoked the 30-day state of siege to restore order and protect people and property.
The siege suspends individual liberties and gives security forces wide powers of search, seizure and arrest.
Haiti, with about 6 million inhabitants, is the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere.
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