Los Angeles Times
February 28, 2004

Chaos Erupts in Haitian Capital; U.S. Military May Deploy to Area

Rebels encircle the lawless city as diplomats discuss Aristide's possible succession.

By Carol J. Williams and Paul Richter
Times Staff Writers

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti This Caribbean capital descended into widespread lawlessness Friday, with armed gangs loyal to Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide executing at least two suspected rebel collaborators in public, stealing vehicles at gunpoint and shooting at motorists trying to drive through streets blocked by flaming barricades.

As U.S. diplomats here blamed Aristide for the violence, President Bush underscored his administration's view that the Haitian president should consider resigning for his nation's good. The U.S. military prepared for possible action and said the Coast Guard this week had repatriated 531 Haitians fleeing the chaos on the island. A Pentagon spokeswoman would not confirm reports that the U.S. was considering dispatching three Navy ships with a Marine force to waters off Haiti.

Diplomats discussed possible arrangements for a governmental succession based on the Haitian Constitution, a reflection of the depth of Aristide's woes. Rebels, who already control more than half of Haiti, on Friday captured towns in the southern part of the country for the first time, as they encircled Port-au-Prince.

The U.S. Embassy in the capital urged rebels to back down but also appealed to Aristide to order the gangs loyal to him to stop terrorizing people there.

"The United States government is dismayed to report that pro-government popular organizations in Port-au-Prince have begun to burn, pillage and kill. Even a hospital is apparently under attack at this moment," the embassy said in a statement. "The armed gangs that are spreading terror and attacking citizens and the general population are acting in the name of Jean-Bertrand Aristide."

Aristide was defiant, telling CNN in a telephone interview that he had a "responsibility to do what is right" against the uprising. To him, that meant defending the country against the 3-week-old armed revolt, launched by former loyalists who have turned on him and been joined by leaders of the disbanded Haitian army back from exile in the neighboring Dominican Republic.

Rebel leader Guy Philippe, who had vowed for days to march on the capital and capture Aristide unless the president resigned, told radio reporters in Cap Haitien that he had changed strategy and would instead use his gunmen to cut the capital off from food and fuel deliveries. That could mean the standoff will drag on for days and possibly weeks.

"We're going to block Port-au-Prince totally," said Philippe, whose pledge to take the capital by Sunday had sparked revenge attacks by pro-Aristide gangs.

Philippe, a former Cap Haitien police chief who was fired in 2000 after being suspected of plotting a coup against Aristide, has promised to hand over power to a civilian authority if his revolt is successful. But so far there is no indication of who would succeed Aristide.

On both sides of the Atlantic, diplomats debated how to reach a political settlement to the crisis. In Paris, Haitian government officials met with French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin, who emphasized afterward that Aristide had to decide whether to step down.

De Villepin said Aristide should not expect an international force to protect him before a political deal was reached. Diplomats close to the negotiations said they hoped the visit would help convince Aristide that he did not have international support and should resign.

In Washington, Bush cited comments a day earlier by Secretary of State Colin L. Powell urging Aristide to consider resigning, but he also stressed that the United States' top goal was a negotiated solution.

"We're interested in achieving a political settlement," Bush said after a White House meeting with German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder.

If Aristide resigns, under the Haitian Constitution power would be handed to the chief justice of the Supreme Court, Boniface Alexandre, an appointee of Aristide's Lavalas Party.

But analysts here said the process for succession could be chaotic because the constitution calls for the National Assembly to swear in the chief justice. The parliament has ceased to exist because opposition groups boycotted elections last year and lawmakers' terms expired.

On Feb. 5, a gang armed by the Lavalas Party rose up against police and government institutions in Gonaives to protest the September slaying of their leader, Amiot Metayer. His gang once backed Aristide, but its members believe that the president's agents killed their leader.

On Friday, Philippe's gunmen, who joined the revolt, overran the town of Mirebalais, about 25 miles northeast of the capital. Other anti-Aristide groups took control in the southern cities of Les Cayes, Jacmel and Jeremie. Looting broke out at the capital's port, where slum dwellers led by Aristide's gangs had broken through a metal fence the night before. The body of a man with a head wound lay near the entrance, presumably a guard shot by looters.

Thousands of people pushed their way into the freight yard and hauled away the contents of shipping containers pried open with crowbars. The looters carried off sacks of rice, boxes of car parts, clothing and electronics atop their heads and also used wheelbarrows and bicycles.

Outside the National Palace, hundreds of pro-Aristide militants waved leafy branches torn from shrubs and chanted vows to defend the president at any cost.

A few blocks away, the bodies of two men with their hands bound lay on the garbage-strewn asphalt, after executions by Aristide supporters.

Aristide's gangs of chimeres Creole for "mythical monsters" also caused mayhem in Petionville, a hillside suburb that is a patchwork of elegant villas, modest cinder-block homes and tin-roof shanties. Having erected roadblocks to bar any rebel onslaught during the previous two nights, they fortified the barricades before nightfall and mobilized street children to help them.

Boys as young as 7 or 8 stole tires from gas stations that had closed Thursday for lack of fuel and used them for bonfires to repel anyone approaching.

Those with guns used them to fire over the heads of journalists trying to make their way through the bonfires.

Few cars plied the capital's streets as most residents hunkered down in their homes. Police were nowhere in sight and opposition leaders were in hiding.

"The way the streets are, everybody is staying off the streets. He's got people out looking for us so we're pretty much locked down for the time being," Charles Baker, a businessman and fierce opponent of Aristide, said of the president.

Baker who like other opposition leaders has tried to distance himself from the revolt said he no longer regarded Philippe's gunmen as dangerous rebels but as "liberators" because they are cheered by Haitians when they move in and scatter the hated chimeres.

Despite appeals by French and U.S. officials to spare his country a bloodletting, Aristide showed no signs of backing down.

In the CNN interview the president's second set of lengthy remarks to the news network in two days Aristide blamed his predicament on remnants of the military forces of the junta that deposed him in 1991 and said he would never allow them to force him out of power again.

"Today those killers, the terrorists, are back. They are ready to kill thousands of people," he said. "I have the responsibility as elected president to stay, to protect the people the way I am."

The Bush administration has played down the possibility of a military intervention. But Marines in North Carolina are on notice that they could be called to duty off Haiti. The commander of a Marine expeditionary force at Camp Lejeune informed his troops a week ago that they might be deployed soon.

"Things are bubbling right now in a nation in our own hemisphere, and you're the Marines to be looking at to possibly answer that contingency," Marine Lt. Gen. H.P. Osman told his troops, who are part of the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit, which has 2,200 Marines in all.

Even if dispatched, the Marines may serve the same limited role as a similar unit dispatched last summer on Navy ships from Norfolk, Va., to the coast of Liberia, where they remained for about three months during political strife in case they were needed to protect U.S. citizens or property.

But White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan said: "I wouldn't overinterpret the planning that's going on right now. We make appropriate contingency plans for circumstances. But right now we remain focused on finding a peaceful and democratic and constitutional solution to the situation in Haiti."

The U.S. reiterated its warnings to Haitians against attempting to flee to the United States.

The Coast Guard's report of intercepting the 531 Haitians in boats this week is the most significant indication to date that the crisis could trigger a serious outflow.

U.S. officials, trying to discourage an exodus, announced that the Haitians had been returned to their homeland, with the assistance of Haitian authorities.

"The U.S. policy with respect to boat migrants, including Haitians, is clear. They will be returned to the country from which they departed," said Richard Boucher, the chief State Department spokesman.

On Capitol Hill, the administration took more fire from lawmakers who want officials to move in military forces now to prevent a battle in Port-au-Prince.

Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) said thousands of Haitians were killed during the strife of 1993 and 1994. "Today we are on the brink of an even bigger catastrophe," he said.

Williams reported from Port-au-Prince and Richter from Washington.