- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 2, 2004

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Rebels took advantage of a power vacuum yesterday, declaring themselves in control militarily of the country despite the presence of U.S. and French troops sent after Jean-Bertrand Aristide resigned as president and fled the country.

Reversing earlier promises to lay down their arms once Mr. Aristide was out of power, leader Guy Philippe said the rebels would not disarm unless supporters of the former president did so first. Mr. Aristide fled the country Sunday as the rebels prepared to move on the capital.

“I will not lay down my arms, despite international pressure,” Mr. Philippe said yesterday during an open-air meeting in Petionville, a suburb of Port-au-Prince.

He called on the “chimeres,” as backers of Mr. Aristide are called, to disarm and said he would not give up his weapons until they did.

U.S. officials called on the rebels to lay down their arms, saying they had no political role to play in the future of the troubled Caribbean nation.

Addressing a congressional hearing in Washington, Assistant Secretary of State Roger Noriega said Mr. Philippe “is not in control of anything but a ragtag band of people.”

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher, meanwhile, said, “All illegal and armed groups should lay down their arms.”

The United States put helicopters in the air and deployed Marines to the office of Prime Minister Yvon Neptune after Mr. Philippe threatened to arrest him. The rebels never arrived at the office, however, avoiding a possible confrontation with the U.S. forces.

Mr. Neptune has not been seen publicly since he announced Mr. Aristide’s resignation on Sunday.

About 400 U.S. soldiers are now in the country, although most have remained at the airport. Their commander, Col. Dave Berger, said that depending on circumstances, “We may show a greater presence in the city at any time.”

Earlier yesterday, Mr Philippe appeared more conciliatory. Flanked by camouflage-clad rebels and uniformed police, the rebel leader declared that he was in control of the country “on a military and police level” but that he would relinquish that power if asked by Boniface Alexandre, who as the chief Supreme Court justice is acting as president.

“At this moment, I am the commander in chief of the Front for National Resistance of Haiti and now we have merged with the Haitian national police,” Mr. Philippe said at a hotel in the hills above Port-au-Prince, where he and other rebel leaders have taken up residence.

“The president should name [a new military chief],” he said, but “until the president takes the decision, we have the moral obligation to help people.”

Mr. Philippe said Mr. Alexandre should reconstitute the army “because that is the constitution, but the role I have to play he will decide.”

Mr. Aristide disbanded the army in 1995.

For the moment, Mr. Philippe said, men under his command would patrol the streets.

“We will depose our arms, but now there is a problem in the city center people. [There is] looting, and we have a moral obligation to come to the aid of the people.”

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