The Washington Post
Wednesday, March 3, 2004; Page A01

Rebel Claims Control Over Haiti's Security

By Kevin Sullivan and Scott Wilson
Washington Post Foreign Service

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti, March 2 -- Rebel leader Guy Philippe declared on Tuesday that he was in control of Haiti's security forces, then watched as his followers looted a downtown museum to the roaring approval of thousands of supporters outside the National Palace.

As violence escalated in Port-au-Prince, bodies lay at intersections, in downtown warehouses and unclaimed at the morgue. Several hundred U.S. Marines, in Haiti as part of an international peacekeeping force, did not patrol streets, but guarded the port and government buildings, and escorted diplomats around the city.

Philippe's declarations and the occupation of the former army headquarters appeared to signal an increase in the ambitions of the rebels, many of whom were members of security forces that once terrorized the country. The move also challenged U.S. efforts to establish a new consensus government led by civilians from the opposition and the former ruling party.

"I am commander in chief of the national resistance front -- military chief," Philippe, 36, said at a morning news conference. He also claimed to accept the authority of the new civilian president, Boniface Alexandre, who was sworn in Sunday after his deposed predecessor, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, fled the country. But Alexandre has not been seen in public since he took office, and the structure of a future Haitian government was far from clear.

Philippe, a former military officer and police chief linked to previous coup attempts, appeared early Tuesday afternoon on a second-floor balcony of the country's former military headquarters. He did not speak, but another rebel commander vowed in a screaming, fist-waving speech that the rebels would arrest Aristide's followers, including "the chief of the thugs and the criminals," referring to Prime Minister Yvon Neptune. Neptune, an Aristide ally, remains in the country to participate in the formation of an interim government with the backing of the new president and the U.S. government.

With Marines watching from the roof and grounds of the nearby National Palace, a frenzied crowd that included rebels rampaged though the elegant two-story former army headquarters, which Aristide had turned into the Women's Affairs Ministry.

Aristide disbanded the army, long identified with repression under the 29-year rule of Francois "Papa Doc" Duvalier and his son, Jean-Claude Duvalier, known as "Baby Doc." A former parish priest and champion of the poor, Aristide was deposed in a military coup in 1991 after seven months in office. A U.S. military force restored him to power in 1994 and he was reelected president in 2000. He left the country for the Central African Republic on Sunday, after a three-week rebel insurgency left more than 70 people dead.

The former military building had been used to house an exhibition of folk art celebrating Haiti's 200th anniversary of independence from France. Members of the crowd dropped paintings, wooden crosses, decorative coffins and other Haitian folk art from the balcony before setting the objects on fire. The political spree of destruction recalled the period following the 1986 fall of the Duvalier family dictatorship -- known as the "uprooting" for the widespread pillaging and political killings that ensued.

"These guys are primitive," said Bernard, 42, who declined to give his full name. He said he was unemployed and had been deported back to Haiti from the United States. "This is the worst thing I've ever seen in my life. They are sacrificing the new regime at its baby stage."

U.S. diplomats on Tuesday worked with Alexandre, Neptune, and other allies and civilian opponents of Aristide to form an interim government that would steer the country through a period of violent upheaval.

Meeting with reporters before his ride downtown in a convoy that included members of Haiti's national police, Philippe said he supported the country's transition to a new civilian administration, following what Aristide's opponents said was three years of autocratic, corrupt and often brutal leadership by Aristide.

But after the rally, several hundred rebel supporters massed outside the prime minister's office. Reached by cell phone, Neptune said he was safely inside and was being guarded by the Marines. He said he was committed to the broad agreement among Aristide's supporters, his opponents and foreign diplomats to form a new government.

"The international community has to do what it has committed to do so the whole thing can go on peacefully," he said.

Hans Tippenhauer, a leader of a coalition of business and civic leaders that had been pressing for Aristide's peaceful resignation for more than a year, said that closed-door negotiations to craft a transitional government continued slowly on Tuesday. He said members of his movement, along with U.S. officials, members of Aristide's Lavalas party and others were trying to finalize details of an interim government. He said the negotiations could take two or three more days. He also expressed concern about the rebels' intentions.

Human rights activists said they were deeply suspicious of Philippe and other rebel leaders. Some of them, including Louis Jodel Chamblain, a former death squad leader, have been convicted of terrorizing and killing many Haitians. Many are former officers of the Haitian army, which was the chief tool of terror of the brutal Duvalier family dictatorship from 1957 to 1986.

Reached by telephone in France by a Miami television station, Jean-Claude Duvalier, forced into exile in 1986, said he wanted to return to Haiti as soon as possible, the Reuters news agency reported. Running for president is "not on my agenda," Reuters reported him as saying.

The violence on Tuesday came after a day of relative calm. The capital city of 1.3 million people was convulsed with looting and killing on Sunday after news spread of Aristide's departure. But on Monday, when Philippe and his rebels arrived in the capital, police appeared to have restored order to much of the burned-out downtown. There were scattered reports of reprisal killings by police -- working with the rebels and other armed civilians -- against Aristide supporters.

Edner Nonez, 29, police chief of the downtown Cafeteria section, which includes the city's port and the vast La Saline slum, said he welcomed help from the rebels. He said his 125 officers had only four working cars and that combining forces was "helpful."

"I would like to believe that we could converge our forces to bring peace," Nonez said.

Several downtown areas were again wracked by looting and killings Monday night. In the Lakoutea district, at least seven bodies lay in the rubble of still-smoldering concrete warehouses burned and looted since Sunday. Some warehouse owners, returning to their properties for the first time, dug through the debris with their hands, apparently looking for anything worth salvaging.

On Avenue John Brown, a main commercial street leading to the National Palace, a dead man lay in an intersection with a gunshot wound to the head. On Boulevard Jean-Jacques Dessalines, another main thoroughfare, the charred bodies of two police officers who were shot and then burned on Monday lay in the bed of a burned-out Toyota pickup truck. The nearby police station in the Saint Joseph district in the city center was burned out overnight.

A small group of people, many of them carrying photographs, gathered outside the state morgue looking for missing family members. The morgue's director, Merite Merilien, said there were at least 15 bodies inside, and many more had probably been taken to private hospitals or homes during the violence since Friday.

He said the morgue had been without electricity for days and the lack of lights and refrigeration made it impossible to allow family members inside to identify the corpses. And he said the continued fighting in the streets made it difficult to bury them.

"Buried? Are you kidding?" he said. "This is still going on. It's impossible."

© 2004