Rebels on Friday took over a key crossroads town and edged closer to the capital Port-au-Prince while supporters of the embattled president desperately tried to mount defences.

A group of rebels called the "Assaillants" (Attackers) from Haiti's Central Plateau took control of the town of Mirebalais overnight, freeing prisoners from the local jail, a former legislator and radio reports said.
   
Mirebalais is about 50km northeast of Port-au-Prince and sits at a junction with access to the capital, the rebel stronghold in the north, the coastal town of Saint Marc and the border with the Dominican Republic, where rebel leaders lived in recent years.
   
Haitian National Police dispatched officers to Les Cayes, Haiti's third-largest city, to quell an uprising, a police official said. Les Cayes is southwest of the capital, an indication the rebellion in the north was spreading.
   
Guy Philippe, an ex-police chief accused of plotting coups and who returned from exile in the Dominican Republic, said his men had surrounded Port-au-Prince and were awaiting orders to attack. Philippe has said he wants to celebrate his 36th birthday on Sunday in the capital.

Aristide, who has repeatedly said he will stay in office until his second term expires in 2006, is also under pressure from abroad. 

Guards loyal to Aristide continue
to protect the palace

France suggests resignation
  
French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin told a Haitian government delegation in Paris Aristide should quit as part of efforts to end the rebellion.
   
The United States, which restored Aristide to office with an invasion in 1994 after he was ousted in a coup three years earlier, openly questioned whether he should remain in power in the face of a revolt that has killed at least 65 people.
   
Aristide has predicted a blood bath if the rebels enter the capital and pleaded for international soldiers to head off a coup. Rebels hold Cap Haitien, Haiti's second largest city, and Gonaives, the fourth largest.
   
"I would like to tell Guy Philippe and his band of criminals that Port-au-Prince is not Gonaives or Cap Haitien," said Sony Joseph, an Aristide loyalist surrounded by men with shotguns, pistols and rifles near the National Palace. "They say they are coming. So we are waiting for them."
   
Dozens of Aristide loyalists stood in the streets early on Friday around the palace, a stately white building surrounded by an iron fence. Shipping containers and debris used for barricades littered streets leading to the palace grounds. 

Hard-core loyalists
   
Armed gangs loyal to the president were out in large numbers overnight, setting fire to roadblocks built of tyres, charred car wreckage, old appliances and rocks. Masked men questioned motorists and shouted "Five Years," a rallying cry referring to Aristide serving out his term as president. 

Aristide has vowed to hold on to
power

Looters hit the main port on Friday, carrying away goods from shipping containers, while Aristide supporters stripped a warehouse belonging to businessman Smarck Michel, a former prime minister who turned against Aristide, witnesses said.

Across the capital, street markets were open, but many shops were closed and the streets were quieter than usual.

The International Committee of the Red Cross said on Friday 15 people had died in the rebel assault on Cap Haitien last weekend - 10 had been previously reported - taking the toll to at least 65 in clashes that began on 5 February when a street gang overran the western city of Gonaives.

A negotiated end to the crisis in the country of 8 million seems far away. This week Aristide's political foes rejected power-sharing and reiterated demands that the president leave the palace.

Caribbean nations asked the United Nations to send an international force to restore order in Haiti, which has a long history of coups and dictatorships. The UN Security Council said it was ready to order a peacekeeping force on condition Haiti's government and opposition leaders reach a power-sharing accord.
   
Foreigners and Haitians have been fleeing the country for days, but the number of ways out were shrinking. American Airlines has suspended its five daily US flights to Haiti.