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Exclusive-Haiti ex-coup leader Guy Philippe demands PM resign, wants presidency

Haiti extends state of emergency as gang violence rages, in Port-au-Prince

By Stephen Eisenhammer

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - Guy Philippe, who helped lead a coup in Haiti in 2004 and returned to the Caribbean island last year after serving a prison sentence in the U.S., demanded on Friday that the country's prime minister resign and said he wanted to become president.

Months of violence have pushed the government in Haiti to the brink of collapse, with increasingly powerful gangs demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Ariel Henry who remains outside the country, seemingly unable or unwilling to return.

"He should resign," Philippe, a 56-year-old former police chief, said in an interview with Reuters over Zoom from Haiti. "I think he should stay where he is now ... and let Haitians decide their fate."

Henry's spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Henry left Haiti last week to secure Kenya's leadership for a long-delayed U.N.-backed security mission he first requested in 2022 to help fight the gangs. He is believed to still be in Puerto Rico, where he arrived on Tuesday.

The government extended on Thursday a state of emergency around the capital Port-au-Prince as the violence forced thousands to flee their homes and the main airport to close.

Authorities first announced the state of emergency on Sunday after armed gangs broke thousands of inmates out of prison.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken urged Henry on Thursday to support a political transition for the country, where the healthcare system is near collapse, children are unable to attend school, and thousands have been killed, kidnapped or driven from their homes. There have been widespread reports of rape and torture by the gangs.

In 2004, Philippe was one of the main leaders in the successful overthrow of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. He had a failed run for president in 2006, before winning a senate seat in 2016, though he was arrested and extradited to the United States before he could be sworn in.

Philippe was deported from the U.S. to Haiti in November after serving six years of a prison sentence for money laundering derived from drug trafficking.

He said his conviction would not get in the way of his political future, citing the experiences of former South African leader Nelson Mandela, former Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez and Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.

Asked if he wanted to be president, Philippe said: "Yes! I'm going into politics. I was a senator, I've been elected by my people, I will go again in elections.

"Mandela was in prison, Hugo Chavez was in prison, Lula was in prison ... and so if my people believe and trust me, I will be their leader," he said.

Since his return to Haiti, Philippe has traveled the country rallying support and calling for the government to step down.

In a February report, the Geneva-based Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime named Philippe as an important figure among Haiti's "strongmen who straddle the line between vigilante leaders and political bosses, accumulating considerable power."

Philippe said his recent return to the country meant he did not have deep connections to the gangs and he was not behind the gang violence.

But he said there were some gang members that supported him because they liked what he had to say.

"They like my speech, and some want to follow me," he said.

He did not denounce the gangs and said he would seek to implement an amnesty for their leaders were he to take power.

"Who is worse? The one in the streets with the weapons or the ones in the office that call themselves prime ministers, president, ministers ... that are stealing everything this country has?," he said.

In recent months, Philippe has been seen at public events defended by members of BSAP - an environmental police unit that security analysts say has effectively become a paramilitary group.

Philippe said the protection came from individual agents who believed in his message and wanted to protect him.

He stressed that he would seek to put his country's relationship with powers like the U.S., France and Canada on a more equal footing and criticized the international backing that he said had kept Henry in power.

"If Haiti is where it is now, it's partly because of them," he said. "We are not enemies, we don't hate United States, we don't hate France or Canada... We know we need their help, we know Haiti is a poor country, but at least we would like to receive this help with dignity."

Asked if he thought there would be a civil war in Haiti, as one gang leader warned this week, Philippe said: "No... I know the Americans who are deciding everything here will be wise enough to understand that Haitians want some kind of change."

(Reporting by Stephen Eisenhammer, additional reporting by Sarah Morland, Editing by Rosalba O'Brien)