- The Washington Times - Friday, February 27, 2004

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Masked gangs loyal to President Jean-Bertrand Aristide streamed onto the capital’s streets to face off armed rebels set to take the city yesterday as U.S. Marines were standing by, waiting for the order to race to Haiti.

Rebel leader Guy Philippe said the rebels would continue capturing towns near Port-au-Prince but would hold off a final assault on the capital for a couple of days to see whether Mr. Aristide would bow to international and rebel pressure and resign.

“The idea is to try to see if Aristide will leave because, if we go in, some people might die,” said Mr. Philippe from his hotel headquarters in the northern city of Cap-Haitien.

The rebellion has claimed about 70 lives since an anti-Aristide gang in the city of Gonaives rose up against the president on Feb. 5. Exiled army members have subsequently crossed the border from the Dominican Republic to take over the revolt.

Sources in Norfolk, home to the U.S. Navy’s Atlantic Fleet, said the amphibious assault ship USS Saipan was on notice to leave for the half-island nation as it spiraled into chaos, leaving civilians, including thousands of Americans, vulnerable.

The warship, designed to carry helicopters and Harrier jumpjets, could be used to rescue U.S. Embassy personnel and U.S. civilians trapped in a wave of violence.

U.S. Embassy officials here said they were not sure how many Americans were still in Haiti, but previous estimates had put the U.S. population at roughly 20,000.

President Bush yesterday did not appear keen on military intervention to save Mr. Aristide, the priest-turned-politician that U.S. forces reinstated to power in 1994.

“We’re interested in achieving a political settlement,” Mr. Bush said, adding that Washington was working with other nations on a multinational force that would ensure stability once a political settlement is reached.

Defense officials, speaking to Reuters news agency on the condition of anonymity, said that sending the three-ship Saipan group to Haiti was one of a range of options under review. It would take about two days for the ships to reach Haiti, one official said.

Navy Lt. Jon Spiers said that by yesterday afternoon “no deployment orders have been issued and no decisions have been made.”

An international effort to broker a peaceful power-sharing resolution to the uprising failed Tuesday after opposition leaders echoed rebel demands that Mr. Aristide step down. By Thursday, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell suggested the Haitian leader consider that option.

“Whether or not he is able to effectively continue as president is something he will have to examine carefully, in the interest of the Haitian people,” Mr. Powell said.

Expecting an imminent rebel attack, pro-Aristide gangs patrolled the streets of Port-au-Prince in pickup trucks, wearing ski masks or black face paint and carrying pistols, rifles and automatic weapons. Others manned burning barricades on the city streets.

Hordes of Haitians looted containers filled with food, televisions and furniture from the city’s seaport. Shops were shuttered and normally bustling market stalls downtown were eerily silent.

Pro-Aristide gangs, whom the opposition and rebels have accused of terrorizing the president’s political opponents for the past three years, built barricades with rubble to protect the National Palace, where police stood guard with a single M50 machine gun and automatic rifles.

The rebels Thursday night took the key crossroads city of Mirebalais, 25 miles from the capital, and freed dozens of prisoners. The rebels found little resistance because the police had fled the city two days earlier, residents said in telephone interviews.

“We heard a lot of gunshots overnight,” said one resident. “From time to time we still hear some shots,” he said. “The prisoners are all in the streets. We are all nervous.”

U.S. military forces last intervened in Haiti in 1994, when they returned Mr. Aristide to power after he had been deposed in a military coup.

“But unfortunately, it didn’t stay together,” said Mr. Powell. “Corruption came into play, inefficiency came into play, cronyism came into play and the whole political tapestry of the country came apart.”

Although Mr. Aristide was wildly popular at first, the 2000 flawed elections that returned him to the presidency embittered the opposition and led to a sharp cut in aid.

Mr. Aristide yesterday continued to defy international pressure to resign. The Haitian leader has insisted he will serve out his term until 2006 and has been calling on the international community to back his government.

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said the United States was in constant touch with the Haitian government and opposition as well as France, Canada and the Caribbean Community (Caricom) to try and defuse the situation.

Mr. Powell has spoken to French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin every day for the past three to four days, he said. Mr. de Villepin told a Haitian government delegation in Paris yesterday that Mr. Aristide should resign to help end the bloody rebellion.

“The international community is applying pressure on him so maybe he will leave. … But in one or two days [if he has not left] we are moving in,” warned rebel leader Mr. Philippe.

In the meantime, he said, the rebels planned to choke off food supplies to the city and to post eight police boats they have captured in the Port-au-Prince harbor.

“We will cut off everything,” said Mr. Philippe, who has said he wants to be in Port-au-Prince for his birthday tomorrow.

The United States, Mr. Boucher said yesterday, was still working “to find a political arrangement that will work, that can effectively calm things down and that can allow for the introduction of foreign security assistance that would help to really calm things down completely.”

Sen. Tom Harkin, Iowa Democrat, yesterday criticized the administration’s lack of action.

“The administration needs to step up to the plate on this,” he said, warning that Haiti, the poorest country in the hemisphere, was on the brink of a humanitarian catastrophe.

Sharon Behn in Washington contributed to this article.

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