Rebel leadership united in mission: To push Aristide out
By Jane Regan
CAP-HAITIEN · The heavily armed rebels who now control almost half of Haiti get fresh recruits every day. As their numbers swell, they become more open about their makeup and more emphatic about their goal: to oust President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.
"We don't want power. We just want Aristide out of power. When that
happens ... we'll turn in our guns," said Guy Philippe, commander of the
Revolutionary Liberation Front, in an interview. "I don't want to be president. I just want to get rid of Aristide."
Philippe made the comments while climbing out of a pickup outfitted
with a machine-gun mount. His truck carried a large squad of gun-toting
soldiers, most in U.S.
Army surplus fatigues with bare spots where there were once name tags.
Philippe and his squad were returning to their makeshift headquarters
-- a three-star hotel in this former popular tourist spot -- after a patrol.
Hanging around the parking
lot was another large group of rebels, and out on the back terrace, several dozen were waiting for their next assignment.
When Philippe and his co-conspirators crossed the border into Haiti
from the Dominican Republic a couple of weeks ago, they didn't have many
men with them. Now
they command an armed force complete with a chain of command, headed by 10 officers.
"If we stayed here for another week, we'd have 1,000 men," said Philippe,
a charismatic ex-soldier who served as a police chief before Aristide accused
him of drug
dealing and coup mongering about four years ago. "They show up every day."
He flashed a smile and went to talk to a small swarm of reporters waiting by the hotel's pool.
"Soldiers come to us because they believe in our cause," said Gilbert
Dragon, 35, Philippe's soft-spoken second-in-command. "We are about 90
to 95 percent
Haiti's army once numbered about 7,000. But Aristide, Haiti's first
democratically elected leader, dismantled the army in 1995 after being
swept from office in a 1991
coup d'état led by military leaders and then returned to power in 1994 with the help of U.S. military forces.
Founded by the U.S. Marines during the first U.S. occupation of Haiti,
from 1915 to 1934, the army was often more a tool of Haiti's brutal ruling
regimes than a
protector of the country's borders. Dragon said he was happy to be back in Haiti as part of the force. A former soldier and ex-police chief, he was also accused of
plotting a coup against Aristide, and, like Philippe, he fled to the Dominican Republic. He and Philippe attended special military training in Ecuador in the 1990s.
Another key figure in the force is Louis-Jodel Chamblain, who was also
living in exile across the border before the recent uprising. Chamblain,
once a soldier, is
remembered more for the paramilitary group he headed during the coup, the Front for Haitian Advancement and Progress, or FRAPH.
FRAPH, whose acronym sounds like the French and Creole word for "hit,"
was accused by international rights groups of many murders. In 1995, Chamblain
condemned in absentia for allegedly participating in the Sept. 11, 1993, murder of an Aristide supporter, Antoine Izmery.
All three men deny the charges against them, but they do not deny planning the escalating rebellion in Haiti, aimed at shaking the very foundations of Aristide's power.
"We had been planning this for a long time, and then came an opportunity. We seized it," Dragon said.
That opportunity emerged on Feb. 5, when a formerly pro-government gang
took over the local police station during an uprising in Gonaïves.
About 20 former soldiers
participated in that assault, gang members say. Since then, the rebellion has spread to more than a dozen cities and towns, gathering more recruits and former soldiers
along the way.
Dragon said the front's force is self-financed and that the arms the
rebels use -- including M-1s and high-tech automatic weapons -- and ammunition
come from police
or pro-Aristide chimère militants who leave them behind when front members show up.
Also, the new recruits are former military men who say they participated
in the deadly attacks on Haitian police and local officials in Pernal in
2002 and in 2003. The
government has long accused Philippe of fomenting those assaults, but he continues to deny the charges.
Once reviled for their abuses during previous Haiti dictatorships and
the 1991-1994 coup, the former soldiers have often been embraced by residents
of the towns the
rebels have overtaken since Feb. 5, while some just stare in disbelief.
Aristide has said that his dissolution of the army was one of his biggest
accomplishments. But many of these former soldiers say they still consider
"When I heard about what happened up there, I said, `This is not a job
for civilians; it's a job for soldiers,'" said former army Sgt. Joseph
Jean-Baptiste, 43. Now a
member of the front's command, Jean-Baptiste heads an association of ex-soldiers.
Rebels now control many of the major highways in Haiti. Since they moved
into Cap-Haïtien on Sunday, they have cut off interurban state telephone
service and say
they are going to set up a public administration.
Philippe, Chamblain and others insist there is no connection between
Haiti's more moderate political opposition groups and the armed rebellion
they are leading. But both
organizations share a common goal.
"The opposition has its job, and we have our job, which is to liberate the people from the slavery of Jean-Bertrand Aristide," Chamblain said.
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