Loyalist soldiers fired from armored cars and howitzers in front of the national palace on Friday night in what appeared to be a showdown between the Presidential Guard and mutineers demanding the ouster of Haitian leader Lt. Gen. Prosper Avril.

The rebel soldiers were dug in at the Dessalines Barracks, only 200 yards from the palace.Reporters watched from a second-floor terrace of the Holiday Inn as at least one armored car rumbled across the plaza in front of the palace and fired its cannon. Guardsmen took positions in the plaza.

The action began at 7:40 p.m. Within 20 minutes more than a dozen cannon shots, accompanied by steady machine gun fire, was heard coming from the plaza and the direction of the barracks.

Civilians fled the area, some rushing the doors of the hotel.

It appeared that armored cars of the 1,000-member Presidential Guard had surrounded the barracks.

One armored car was positioned about 150 yards from the Holiday Inn, which is on the east side of the barracks. A witness who lives in a house adjacent to the barracks and was contacted by phone said she could see two armored cars in the street with their cannon turrets pointed at the barracks.

It was impossible to determine the extent of support within the 7,000-man army for the rebellion centered on the 700-man Dessalines battalion, the military's second biggest unit; and the 400-man Leopards unit.

The rebels earlier Friday seized control of a radio station, and youths supporting them built barricades of burning tires along a main street.

The rebel soldiers in a statement on Radio Soleil accused Avril of "war crimes."

U.S. Ambassador Brunson McKinley earlier in the day offered Washington's support for Avril's 6-month-old government, which foiled a coup attempt Sunday but has been unable to quell the mutiny.

Rebels rode through the capital in jeeps, pickup trucks and motorbikes, shooting in the air and warning people to go home, witnesses said. Youths set fire to tires along the five-mile route of Delmas Avenue, a main artery in the capital, and then burned them.

Stores, schools and offices in the capital were closed under a state of emergency.

McKinley met with Avril at the National Palace on the third day of a standoff between loyalist troops and rebels, the U.S. Embassy said.

On Thursday night, loyal troops fired on rebels who commandeered a government vehicle. Witnesses said four rebels were killed, but a diplomatic source said two died and one was wounded.

Haitians were largely cut off from developments Thursday night after loyal troops cut the transmitter cables of at least three radio stations that had ignored censorship imposed by the government this week.