updated 4/6/2004 6:54:10 PM ET 2004-04-06T22:54:10

Ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s interior minister was arrested Tuesday on suspicion of orchestrating the killings of several people presumed to be Aristide opponents, officials said.

The arrest of the man, Jocelerme Privert — the highest-ranking official to be detained since Aristide’s departure Feb. 29 — comes as former government leaders and members of Aristide’s political party complain that Haiti’s interim leaders are targeting them.

“I hope this is done with due process because if not it appears to be a witch hunt,” said Leslie Voltaire, a former Aristide Cabinet member. “We don’t think it’s a good step for rebuilding the country.”

Privert was accused in the killings in mid-February of several suspected Aristide opponents in St. Marc, a northern port city where violence flared before the armed rebellion that pushed Aristide from power, the new government said.

Although Privert allegedly conspired to kill several people in the town, officials did not say how many people were killed, nor did they provide the names of those allegedly slain.

“The procedure is going to follow its normal course,” interim Justice Minister Bernard Gousse told The Associated Press.

Held at national penitentiary
Privert was being held at the national penitentiary during an investigation. Law requires that he hear the charges against him within 48 hours.

Penitentiary Inspector Olmaille Bien-Aime said Privert’s cell was being guarded by U.S. Marines who are part of a peacekeeping force. But Mara Tekach-Bell, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Embassy, denied the claim, saying, “He’s not in our hands.”

Earlier this year, the United States canceled Privert’s U.S. tourist visa without explanation. The United States has canceled the visas of more than a dozen Aristide government officials in the past year, some because of alleged connections to drug trafficking.

Secretary of State Colin Powell said during a one-day visit Monday that U.S. judicial authorities were investigating Aristide on corruption charges. It was unclear whether the U.S. government was investigating other members of Aristide’s government.

Armed rebels and members of the disbanded army that toppled Aristide in a 1991 coup launched a popular uprising Feb. 5 from the northern city of Gonaives, spreading their revolt to the Aristide stronghold and nearby town of St. Marc.

After sporadic gunbattles, police eventually regained control of St. Marc, but in the days that followed, gangs attacked several presumed Aristide opponents. Dozens of houses were torched and several people were killed, including an Aristide opponent who was decapitated.

Complaint alleges Privert sent in gangs
A complaint was filed in St. Marc against Privert, alleging that he ordered the gangs to quell the unrest by targeting suspected Aristide opponents.

Pierre Esperance, a human rights activist, said there were reports that more than 50 people were killed during mid-February in St. Marc. Reporters who were in the town at the time of the attacks reported seeing fewer than five bodies.

Last year, a former city employee in the Aristide stronghold and seaside slum of Cite Soleil fled Haiti after claiming Privert had ordered gangs to kill Aristide opponents in Port-au-Prince.

Privert denied the allegations at the time.

Privert’s arrest comes days after Prime Minister Gerard Latortue’s government announced it would block dozens of former Aristide officials from leaving the country, including former Prime Minister Yvon Neptune.

Gousse has said the move was meant to ensure that officials would be available for investigations into charges of corruption and other crimes.

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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