South Florida Sun-Sentinel
March 2, 2004

Rebel chief declares self Haiti's leader, will arrest prime minister

Associated Press

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti -- Rebel leader Guy Philippe declared himself the new chief of Haiti's military, which was disbanded by ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, and pledged Tuesday that rebel forces will disarm.

Philippe then said he would arrest Prime Minister Yvon Neptune on corruption charges.

"The country is in my hands!'' Philippe announced on Radio Signal FM.

Philippe, flanked by other rebel leaders and senior officers of Haiti's police force, told reporters, "I am the chief,'' then clarified that he meant ``the military chief.''

He said he was "not interested in politics'' and was ready to follow the orders of interim President Boniface Alexandre, chief justice of the Supreme Court, who was installed Sunday.

Asked whether he would disarm if requested to, he said, "We will.''

He then summoned 20 police commanders to meet with him Tuesday and warned that if they failed to appear he would arrest them.

U.S. Marines guarded Neptune's office in the Petionville suburb, where Philippe was headed with hundreds of supporters in a convoy impeded by adoring and cheering crowds.

Neptune's whereabouts were not immediately known. Local radio reported that he was evacuated by helicopter. It was also unclear whether American or French marines _ who arrived in recent days to secure diplomatic missions and other sites _ would try to protect him. Neptune is a top member of Aristide's Lavalas party and his former presidential spokesman.

In a phone call to The Associated Press, Philippe said Neptune would face corruption charges. The rebels appear to be taking advantage of a power vacuum in the wake of Aristide's abrupt departure Sunday.

Shortly before that phone call, Philippe appeared on the second-floor balcony of the colonnaded former army headquarters before a cheering crowd of hundreds. A burly rebel standing next to Philippe urged them to accompany the rebel chief to Neptune's house.

"Arrest Neptune!'' the crowd chanted.

In Washington, Assistant U.S. Secretary of State Roger Noriega said Philippe "is not in control of anything but a ragtag band of people.''

The international military buildup in Haiti will make Philippe's role ``less and less central in Haitian life. And I think he will probably want to make himself scarce,'' Noriega told the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

``We have sent that message to him. He obviously hasn't received it.''

Philippe, who arrived in Port-au-Prince in a rebel convoy Monday, apparently plans to transform his fighters into a reconstituted Haitian army.

The army ousted Aristide in 1991 but then was disbanded by him in 1995, a year after he was returned to power by 20,000 American troops.

Meanwhile, killings continued in the seaside, fetid capital. At least one more body showed up Tuesday on streets still littered with charred barricades set up by Aristide supporters, who rampaged and looted the capital before he fled Sunday.

A young boy with a bullet hole in the head lay by a market square. Residents said he may have been shot for looting.

The rebellion began Feb. 5 in Haiti's north. Aristide opponents accused him of breaking promises to help the poor, allowing corruption fueled by drug trafficking and masterminding attacks on opponents by armed gangs _ charges the president denied.

More than 100 people died in the three-week insurgency and reprisal killings that, combined with pressure from the United States and France, prompted Aristide to flee. He currently is in the Central African Republic, trying to arrange asylum elsewhere.

The crisis was brewing since Aristide's party swept flawed legislative elections in 2000, prompting international donors to freeze millions of dollars in aid.

Politicians and rebels in Port-au-Prince have made no public comment on Aristide's charges Monday that the United States forced him out of power. He was Haiti's first freely elected president in 200 years of independence.

Secretary of State Colin Powell has called those claims ``absolutely baseless, absurd.''

But American officials acknowledged privately that Aristide was told that if he remained in Haiti, U.S. forces would not protect him from the rebels who wanted to arrest him on corruption and murder charges.

Some 300 U.S. Marines and 140 French troops were in Haiti on Tuesday. Commanders of both forces said they had no orders to disarm Haiti's armed factions and instead planned to secure key sites and protect their countries' citizens and government property.

``We are not a police force,'' U.S. Marine Col. Dave Berger said.

His forces were expected to reach 500 by Tuesday night, U.S. defense officials said.

Chile also said it was sending 120 special forces to Haiti on Wednesday as part of a 300-soldier contingent that will join an international security force authorized by the U.N. Security Council.

As scattered looting continued, Louis-Jodel Chamblain, a former death squad leader convicted of murders while in exile, said the rebels planned patrols Tuesday, possibly to the Cite Soleil seaside slum that is a stronghold of die-hard Aristide followers.

Philippe, whom Human Rights Watch said had a ``dubious human rights record'' as police chief of the capital's Delmas section, was expected to meet Tuesday with opposition coalition members, who pointedly have not met with other rebel leaders notorious for human rights violations.

Aristide, meanwhile, was staying in the palace of Central African Republic President Francois Bozize, said Bozize's communications minister, Parfait Mbaye.

A diplomatic source in Washington, asking not to be identified, said Wednesday that Aristide wanted exile in either Morocco or South Africa but both said no.

Previously, Panama and Costa Rica said they would offer Aristide exile.

Associated Press reporter Mark Stevenson in Port-au-Prince contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2004