- The Washington Times - Monday, February 23, 2004

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Fifty U.S. Marines streamed into the capital of Haiti yesterday to protect the U.S. Embassy and its staff, while government loyalists set flaming barricades to block the road from rebels threatening to move on Port-au-Prince.

The United States made last-ditch efforts at finding a political solution. As an opposition coalition was on the brink of rejecting a U.S.-backed peace plan because it did not call for President Jean-Bertrand Aristide to step down, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell phoned opposition politicians and asked them to delay their formal response for 24 hours.

Evans Paul, a leading opposition member who was once allied with Mr. Aristide, said the coalition agreed the extra time “will perhaps give Mr. Powell a little more time to consider his position … and give us the assurances we need” on Mr. Aristide’s departure.

Frightened Cabinet ministers were asking friends for places to hide, senior government sources said, a day after the rebels attacked two police stations outside the capital and seized Haiti’s second-largest city, Cap-Haitien, with little resistance.

In Cap-Haitien, rebels hunted down militants loyal to Mr. Aristide, accusing them of terrorizing the population in the days before the fall of the northern port city of 500,000.

“I am a brick mason, I didn’t do anything wrong,” Jean-Bernard Prevalis, 33, pleaded as he was dragged away, his head bleeding.

“We’re going to clean the city of all ‘chimeres,’” said rebel Dieusauver Magustin, 26. Chimere, which means ghost, is used to describe hard-core Aristide militants.

It was not clear what would happen to those detained. One rebel said they were saving them from lynching. But another, Claudy Philippe, said, “The people show us the [chimere] houses. If they are there, we execute them.”

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher yesterday described the situation in Haiti as “fluid” and “evolving.”

“We are trying to make sure we are prepared to provide security to U.S. facilities there,” he said.

Mr. Boucher said the rebels were “not part of the opposition that we are dealing with.”

Thousands of people in Cap-Haitien demonstrated in favor of the rebellion yesterday, chanting, “Aristide get out” and “Goodbye, Aristide.”

Residents went on a rampage of reprisals and looting that began after the insurgents seized the city. Looters stole 800 tons of food from the U.N. World Food Program warehouse, according to the agency’s Andrea Bagnoli, and rioters torched the colonial mansion of Mayor Wilmar Innocent, who supports Mr. Aristide.

Rebel leader Guy Philippe said his men could do nothing to stop the looting and blamed Mr. Aristide’s government for leaving most of Haiti’s 8 million people hungry and desperate. However, some rebels later were seen trying to shoo away looters at Cap-Haitien’s seaport.

The rebels cut cell-phone service in the city, saying they wanted no communication with Port-au-Prince.

Aid agencies have said a humanitarian catastrophe is brewing, with 268,000 people who depended on food aid in northern Haiti being the most vulnerable.

Mr. Aristide’s prime minister, Yvon Neptune, said the international community must help save Haiti from “terrorists that are sowing violence and death,” but he did not go so far as to ask for peacekeepers.

Mr. Neptune appealed to the political opposition coalition to agree to a U.S.-backed international peace plan.

The opposition had said it would formally respond by yesterday afternoon to the plan, but leaders later indicated they would not agree to any proposal unless it requires Mr. Aristide to step down.

The Haitian president on Saturday accepted the plan, which would allow him to remain president with diminished powers, sharing with political rivals a government that would organize elections.

“Jean-Bertrand Aristide is at the center of the violence. He must not remain in power,” Mr. Paul said.

With violence rising with both Aristide supporters and the insurgents, the United States and Mexico told their citizens to leave last week. France did the same yesterday.

With rifles at the ready, 20 U.S. Marines in combat gear and helmets rushed off an Air Force transport plane at Toussaint Louverture International Airport yesterday and ran to make a secure perimeter around the aircraft before the other Marines deplaned.

The Marines then drove to the U.S. Embassy in Port-au-Prince in a convoy of trucks and cars. Western diplomats and a Defense Department official said their mission was to protect the U.S. Embassy and its staff.

Rebel leader Philippe said Sunday that Port-au-Prince was his next target. Cap-Haitien is just 90 miles north of the capital, but is a grueling seven-hour drive over potholed roads sometimes reduced to bedrock.

“I think that in less than 15 days we will control all of Haiti,” Mr. Philippe said.

Sunday’s victory means more than half of Haiti is now beyond the control of the central government. The takeover of Cap-Haitien by some 200 fighters was the most significant victory since the uprising began Feb. 5. At least 17 persons were killed in Sunday’s fighting, raising the toll to about 70 dead and dozens wounded in the revolt.

In Port-au-Prince, hundreds of armed Aristide supporters set up more than a dozen barricades on the road leading north, near the international airport. Their tension was evident as they banged on a car with rifle butts and waved shotguns and pistols at vehicles to force them to stop.

“We are ready to resist, with anything we have — rocks, machetes,” said a teacher guarding one roadblock, who gave his name only as Rincher.

• Sharon Behn contributed to this report from Washington.

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