The Washington Post
Thursday, March 4, 2004; Page A14

Top Haitian Rebels Pledge to Disarm

Facing Pressure From U.S., Force Says It Will Disband and Leave Capital Within Days

By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Foreign Service

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti, March 3 -- Haiti's rebel leaders pledged Wednesday to lay down their weapons, and, facing growing diplomatic and military pressure from the United States, said they would disband and leave the capital within days.

Rebel leader Guy Philippe announced the decision after he met with U.S. diplomats in what a State Department official called "a no-nonsense meeting about them turning in their weapons." There had been several incidents on Wednesday that nearly resulted in clashes between U.S. Marines and the rebels, who fought a three-week insurgency against former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Aristide fled for exile in the Central African Republic on Sunday.

"We are dismantling the front and laying down our guns," said Philippe, a former army officer and police chief. He said his force of several hundred men would leave for the countryside once they had given their armaments to the national police. On Tuesday, Philippe had declared himself in control of the Haitian security forces, raising concern among U.S. officials and many Haitians. Many of the rebels committed human rights violations and participated in death squads in the 1990s.

Foreign diplomats and Haitian political leaders continued to discuss creation of an interim government, but their efforts were complicated by an uncertain security situation in the capital, despite a more obvious show of force by international troops.

Aristide's departure three years into his five-year term, left a political and security vacuum in the hemisphere's poorest country. U.S. officials said there are now about 1,000 Marines in Haiti, part of a multinational peacekeeping force expected to grow to 5,000 troops from several countries.

But Caricom, an alliance of 15 Caribbean nations, announced Wednesday that it would not participate in the force. Prime Minister P.J. Patterson of Jamaica, Caricom's chairman, called for an investigation of Aristide's claim that he was forced out by the United States. U.S. officials have denied the allegation.

"Despite what we have heard in public and despite what we have learned in private, we simply say that the situation calls for an investigation of what transpired," Patterson told reporters, according to the Reuters news agency.

In Washington, there were new questions about the circumstances surrounding Aristide's departure. Democratic members of Congress accused the Bush administration of doing too little to preserve Aristide's future as Haiti's elected president. By refusing to send a force to halt the rebels, they said, the White House allowed them to triumph.

"Call it what you will," said Rep. William D. Delahunt (D-Mass.) "The fact is the administration did nothing to save democracy in Haiti."

Rep. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) said U.S. authorities sent a "dangerous and irresponsible" message to the region that "this administration will not stand up for a democratically elected head of state they do not like."

As rebels took city after city in northern Haiti last month, the U.S. government declined to intervene, saying it would help marshal a security force only when a political settlement was in place. Aristide agreed to share power, but leaders of the opposition refused.

Assistant Secretary of State Roger Noriega, testifying before Congress, said Aristide's government directed a "series of farcical electoral exercises" and refused to govern fairly. He blamed the government for unleashing "brutal attacks" and said Aristide's decision to resign "may eventually be considered his finest hour."

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell testified at a separate hearing that Aristide made his own choices and was not removed forcibly by the U.S. government.

"We don't go around sticking our nose into democracies and trying to tell people what to do," Powell said. "It was a rapidly deteriorating situation and, frankly, it had to be resolved, unfortunately in the way that it was, by President Aristide's departure."

Aristide, first elected in 1990 only to be ousted seven months later in a military coup, was facing a growing insurrection and international pressure when he fled. It was the second time he was forced from office. A U.S. force of 23,00 soldiers returned him to power in 1994, and he was elected to a second term in 2000.

A broad opposition, led largely by the small group of well-to-do Haitians, accused Aristide of corruption and of using violence to thwart political criticism. But thousands of Haiti's poor view the former Roman Catholic priest as a hero because of his populist programs and brave defiance of the Duvalier family dictatorship that he helped bring down in 1986.

More Haitians returned the streets Wednesday following a period of severe violence and looting set off by Aristide's departure. Prime Minister Yvon Neptune, a loyal Aristide lieutenant who has stayed in his post with U.S. backing, estimated damages at $300 million -- more than half of Haiti's annual budget.

The interim president, Boniface Alexandre, remained out of sight Wednesday, and Neptune said "the majority of ministers cannot do their work" because of the continuing threat posed by armed groups on the streets. At least four newly arrived U.S. Marine armored personnel carriers guarded Neptune's office throughout the day.

Meanwhile, diplomats, opposition leaders and members of Aristide's Lavalas party tried to arrange a commission to select an interim governing council and prime minister who would run the country until elections could be held. Neptune said Leslie Voltaire, Aristide's minister for Haitians living overseas, had accepted a position on the three-person commission. Voltaire would join Paul Denis, the opposition's choice, and Adama Guindo, the country director of the U.N. Development Program.

Staff writer Peter Slevin in Washington contributed to this report.

© 2004