The Washington Post
Thursday, February 26, 2004; Page A01

Haitian Rebels Eye Capital

Assault Threatened 'Very Soon' if Aristide Remains

By Kevin Sullivan
Washington Post Foreign Service

CAP-HAITIEN, Haiti, Feb. 25 -- The leader of the armed insurgency against President Jean-Bertrand Aristide on Wednesday vowed a bloody assault on Port-au-Prince "very soon" if Aristide refuses to leave office.

Guy Philippe, a charismatic former army officer and police chief, said his forces were pausing to "give peace its opportunity," but said they were prepared to move on the capital.

"We don't want any blood. We don't want any violence," he said in an interview at the seaside resort hotel he is using as a command center in this rebel-controlled city. "We just need Aristide to hear what the people want and [to] leave."

Philippe, 35, and another rebel leader, Louis Jodel Chamblain, 42, said Aristide's departure and his replacement by an interim leader who would call new elections was the only possible peaceful solution to their three-week-old campaign, which has placed more than half the country in rebel hands.

"Aristide has two choices: prison or execution by firing squad," said Chamblain, a former army officer who said his wife, then seven months pregnant, was clubbed to death by a pro-Aristide gang in 1991. "Every time I remember it, it gives me more strength to fight them."

Preparations against a possible rebel assault were evident in Port-au-Prince on Wednesday. Pro-Aristide militia groups stepped up their vigilance in the increasingly tense capital, 100 miles south of Cap-Haitien. The armed groups set up roadblocks, burned tires after dark at intersections throughout the city and searched vehicles and their occupants.

The groups, known locally as chimère -- a reference to the chimera, a mythological, fire-breathing creature -- are a feared and unpredictable element in the current crisis. Philippe said the gangs, which threatened members of a Canadian television crew on Tuesday, have terrorized and killed Aristide opponents since his term began in 2001. Aristide on Tuesday rejected those allegations and called Philippe and his men "criminals, terrorists and killers."

"This is a battle against state-sponsored terrorism," said Philippe, wearing camouflage fatigues poolside in Cap-Haitien, which rebels seized with barely a fight on Sunday. He said he and three other rebel leaders walked five hours across the border 15 days ago from the Dominican Republic to lead the armed effort against Aristide.

At ease and jocular during an interview that lasted more than an hour, Philippe said that there were at least 300 rebels in Cap-Haitien and that their numbers were growing, because police and pro-Aristide gunmen in captured towns are switching their allegiances. He said that several rebel groups have now fused into a single National Resistance Front, and that he leads the group's 11-member Military Council.

Rebels are already present in Port-au-Prince, he said, including some under cover in the National Palace. He predicted that they would use intelligence to identify and locate leaders of pro-Aristide groups, "neutralize them" and take the city in "one or two hours."

Philippe, who turns 36 on Sunday and is married to an American from Wisconsin, said he had been in exile in the Dominican Republic since Aristide was elected. He denied numerous reports that he had participated in coup attempts in the past.

The rebels are using guns they kept when the military was disbanded in 1995, Philippe said. While many were carrying vintage M-1 rifles, Philippe, guarded by a helmeted man carrying an Uzi, said the group had enough heavier weapons to defeat the police that Aristide has posted outside the National Palace with .50-caliber machine guns.

Winter Etienne, a rebel leader who handles administrative matters, said the rebels' funding was coming largely from Haitians in the United States and Canada, who are either carrying money to family members in Haiti or making wire transfers. None would say exactly how much money they have received.

Cap-Haitien, the rebel stronghold, is a city of 500,000 people on Haiti's northern coast, the crumbled remains of a once-popular tourist resort. The rebels have taken over the Mont Joli Hotel, where rifle-toting men in camouflage looked out over the swimming pool and the turquoise blue Caribbean beyond.

Philippe, who said he earned a law degree in Ecuador and studied medicine in Mexico for a year, said rebels had been forced to take up arms because of the failure of international organizations to act against Aristide, who has said he will serve out his term, which ends in 2006. His opponents have said that his election was influenced by fraudulent congressional elections earlier in 2000.

Since then, disputes have grown and Aristide has been charged with running an increasingly autocratic and corrupt government while failing to solve economic problems. Haiti is wracked by AIDS, and 80 percent of its 8 million people live in poverty.

"I don't know why the international community is talking about 'the elected president,' " Philippe said in English. "They know he was not elected, so why the hypocrisy? Why can't they say the truth? Democracy is not a five-year term. Democracy is a set of principles, the right to live, the right to eat, the right to education, the right to health. Aristide is working against all those principles."

In Port-au-Prince, a coalition of civic groups demanding the president's resignation formally rejected a U.S.-backed proposal to allow Aristide, 50, to stay in office, but share power with opponents. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin and others have been pressing for a diplomatic solution to the crisis.

Philippe said he would wait "some days" to allow the diplomats to find a solution and said his group would lay down arms if Aristide left office. He said he had no interest in running for president and that the new government should be civilian.

He said his forces would kill Aristide if he resisted an attack, but that a trial would be preferable, either in Haiti or at an international court. Philippe said he would welcome an international peacekeeping force, provided Aristide was gone. "If it comes to protect the Haitian people, we'll give all the help we can," he said. "But if it comes to obligate us to accept the dictatorship, I prefer dying."

Philippe denied reports here that he has funded his efforts by trafficking drugs; he alleged that Aristide was "the big drug trafficker in Haiti," which the president's supporters strongly deny.

Chamblain, a former army sergeant, was a leader of death squads in the 1980s and 1990s. He was convicted and sentenced, in absentia, to life imprisonment for his role in a 1994 raid on a slum in the city of Gonaives and for the 1993 assassination of an Aristide ally.

© 2004