- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 19, 2004

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — President Jean-Bertrand Aristide declared yesterday that he was “ready to die” to defend his country, indicating that he would not resign as demanded by political rivals and a bloody rebellion in the north.

Amid the chaos, Washington said it was sending a military team to Haiti to assess the security of the U.S. Embassy, but emphasized that it still wants a political solution to the 2-week-old uprising that has killed at least 60 persons.

Yesterday, pro-government thugs patrolled Haiti’s second-largest city, Cap-Hatien, vowing to counter any rebel attempt to seize control as frightened police officers remained in their station.

Rebels have chased police from more than a dozen towns and cities, some in central Haiti but mostly in the north. From the key northern city of Gonaives, they announced Wednesday that their loosely organized movement now will answer to a single commander and will be called the National Resistance Front to Liberate Haiti.

As casualties mounted, Mr. Aristide held a ceremony in the capital, Port-au-Prince, to honor slain police, repeating his refusal to leave office before his term ends Feb. 7, 2006. It was not clear how many police officers had been killed in the uprising.

“I am ready to give my life if that is what it takes to defend my country,” he said. “If wars are expensive, peace can be even more expensive.”

The president spoke after a U.S. official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said Mr. Aristide had rebuffed a U.S. proposal that he defuse the situation by calling early elections and allowing a temporary board to govern Haiti until a president is chosen.

Mr. Aristide was chosen as Haiti’s first freely elected leader in a landslide election in 1990. Eight months later, he was ousted by the army and took refuge in the United States. He was restored to power by a U.S. invasion in 1994 and disbanded the army.

At the ceremony, Mr. Aristide called for the international community to recognize that his is a legitimate government fighting for democracy against a band of terrorists.

He also asked police officers to help Haitians preserve democracy.

“I order the police to accompany the people courageously with the constitution as their guide,” he said. “When the police are united to the people, they are invincible.”

Yet Haiti’s police force — which Mr. Aristide said is fewer than 4,000 strong — is outnumbered and outgunned by rebels in outlying posts, where insurgents have been burning stations and attacking officers, causing them to flee.

“We have a single strategy, to liberate all the cities in all the districts,” Winter Etienne, a leader of the Gonaives Resistance Front, said Wednesday.

He said rebels from various groups are united behind one commander: Guy Philippe, a former police chief accused of planning a 2001 attack on Haiti’s National Palace that killed 10 persons.

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