The Washington Post
Thursday, March 11, 2004; Page A01

U.S. Rules of Engagement Shift in Haiti

Marines May Seize Arms, Open Fire to Curb Violence

By Peter Slevin
Washington Post Staff Writer

U.S. Marines sent to quell violence in Haiti have received new orders to seize guns from Haitians they encounter on patrol and to open fire, if necessary, to prevent further killings, the senior American commander in the region said yesterday.

The formal rule changes are designed to deter violence and protect 2,500 foreign peacekeeping troops from gunmen waging a brutal power struggle in the aftermath of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide's resignation, said Gen. James T. Hill, chief of the U.S. Southern Command.

"These gunmen posed a threat to our forces," Hill told reporters at the Pentagon. "Any loss of life is regrettable, but we will simply not tolerate acts of violence against our multinational forces or innocent Haitians."

Hill outlined a more aggressive approach than the Pentagon first signaled when President Bush dispatched troops last week to help restore order to the scarred Caribbean nation. U.S. commanders, hopeful the presence of U.S. troops in battle gear would calm the city, had declined to say whether Marines would try to control street violence.

But the violence, including revenge killing and looting, has continued since the Marines landed. Hill said U.S. troops on patrol have been fired upon "a handful of times." Three attacks occurred Tuesday night, when Marines killed two Haitians who had fired at them, a military spokesman said.

Ongoing bloodshed and the assertive tactics outlined by Hill illustrate the perils faced by the White House in a military mission that did not exist two weeks ago when Secretary of State Colin L. Powell was still trying to persuade Aristide and the democratic opposition to accept a power-sharing arrangement.

The U.S. administration, which had long channeled its efforts through the Organization of American States and the Caribbean Community, hoped to establish a cease-fire among armed gangs and end years of stalemate between the authoritarian Aristide and the political figures who demanded his ouster.

The opposition refused to go along, however, and unaligned rebel groups vowed to overthrow Aristide by force if he did not resign. As the rebels advanced and U.S. critics called for action, the administration reversed course and urged Aristide to resign for the good of his country. He fled on Feb. 29.

Bush deployed Marines to Haiti to work alongside forces from France, Canada and Chile, as well as Haiti's overwhelmed police. When the Marines arrived, Hill said, U.S. commanders authorized their units to do whatever was necessary to protect themselves when they felt threatened, including seize weapons.

The orders were expanded and made more explicit in recent days to cover encounters at any time with armed Haitians who are not members of an authorized security force. The U.S. troops need not feel threatened before acting, Hill said he told his principal commander in Haiti by video conference yesterday.

"As his forces move through Port-au-Prince and they encounter any armed Haitian," Hill said, "they are to take that weapon from that Haitian unless he has a valid permit by Haitian law and is in the process of conducting some valid security job."

Hill said it was clear from the start that "no one from the multinational force going in was going to stand there and watch one Haitian kill another Haitian without trying to intervene in that."

Hill discussed a wide array of armed gangs in the city, ranging from Aristide opponents to militant followers of the former president, who contends he was forced from office by the Bush administration, a charge U.S. officials deny.

"We are in negotiations with some of those groups, trying to get them to voluntarily lay down their arms," said Hill, who reported that Haitian authorities are working with foreign forces on disarmament.

Some Aristide loyalists, demanding that he be returned to power, declared yesterday that they would not support interim Prime Minister Gerard Latortue, a former foreign minister selected by a U.S.-backed committee of eminent Haitians.

Latortue, a 69-year-old Aristide critic, returned to Haiti yesterday from Florida. He will replace Yvon Neptune, an Aristide lieutenant whose house was gutted by opponents of the former government.

It was near Neptune's house, said Maj. Richard Crusan, a U.S. military spokesman, that Haitians fired on a Marine patrol Tuesday night. The Marines fired back, killing at least two gunmen, he said.

Another Haitian was shot Sunday after he opened fire on an anti-Aristide demonstration. Marines shot a fourth man when he allegedly raced toward a U.S. checkpoint in the capital, Port-au-Prince.

Describing Haiti as "a nation of violence for many, many, many, many years," Hill said weapons on the street include "everything from rusted M-1s to top-of-the-line Uzis." He said international forces, working with Haitian police, would try to locate and seize caches of weapons.

CIA Director George J. Tenet warned this week that the situation in Haiti remains "very fluid," leaving the possibility of a "humanitarian disaster or mass migration." He noted that anti-Aristide rebels still control much of the country and have not honored earlier promises to surrender their guns.

"What concerns me is the possibility that the interim government, backed by international forces, will have trouble establishing order," Tenet told the Senate Armed Services Committee. "A cycle of clashes and revenge killings could easily be set off, given the large number of angry, well-armed people on both sides."

On Capitol Hill, Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.), who has accused the Bush administration of acting too slowly, disputed the Pentagon assessment that an international force of about 3,000 police and troops is sufficient. He said an incremental approach is a "recipe for failure" and called for additional forces to be sent "immediately."

© 2004