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Military violence blamed for Haitian refugee surge

MIAMI -- Refugee advocates blamed a new round of military violence in Haiti for the flood of overloaded sailboats that filled the Guantanamo Bay Navy camp with refugees and strained Coast Guard cutters at sea Tuesday.

'They (refugees) don't have the arms and ammunition to fight the (Haitian) army,' said Mona Michel, director of the Haitian Refugee Center in Miami.

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Coast Guard cutters in the Windward Passage picked up 1,305 Haitian refugees from 30 'grossly overloaded and unseaworthy' sailboats headed for Florida Monday, breaking an 11-year record set just last week.

By late Tuesday, another 590 Haitian refugees had been taken on board Coast Guard cutters from 10 boats, rescues from two other vessels were in progress and crewmen said there were more sailboats on the horizon.

'If there's enough room at the Guantanamo Bay Navy base, we'll bring them there,' said Petty Officer Roger Wetherell.

'If this kind of rapid increase in numbers continues, we'll reach a saturation point in the next few days -- the point where our cutters can no longer operate safely.'

There were already 10 Coast Guard cutters operating in the area and the agency was considering calling in more from other ports along the Eastern Seaboard, Wetherell said.

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The refugee exodus began with a military coup that ousted Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide Sept. 30. Since then, the Coast Guard has intercepted nearly 13,000 Haitian refugees.

'They stopped coming around Christmas because there was a rumor that Arisitde was going to go back,' Michel said. '(Now) they see that the negotiations are not working. There is nobody heading the country.'

Tensions in Haiti soared following Saturday's murder of a bodyguard for Rene Theodore, the Communist Party leader named by Aristide as interim prime minister. The Haitian Interior Ministry has issued an arrest order for the Army private suspected in the bodyguard's killing.

But Haitian parliamentarians have been unable to agree to the appointment of Theodore, whose chief task would be the formation of a government of consensus to prepare the way for Aristide's return.

More than 8,000 of the Haitian refugees are crammed into tents at the U.S. Navy Base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where they were awaiting an appeals court ruling on their fate.

The U.S. government is seeking court permission to return to Haiti the vast majority who do not qualify for political asylum in the United States.

Haitian advocates urged the United States to show compassion for the refugees.

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'If they're sent back to Haiti under the status quo, it's going to be a tragic thing,' said the Rev. Thomas Wenksi, a Roman Catholic priest who recently visited the refugee camp.

'When I was in Guantanamo many people told me they'd rather die than go back to Haiti under the present situation.'

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