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Photos show Haitians may be preparing for exodus

MIAMI -- Coast Guard aerial photos of Haiti show 610 boats ready to sail and 107 under construction, suggesting a Haitian refugee exodus may be looming, The Miami Herald reported Saturday.

In northwest Haiti, residents were spotted dismantling homes to obtain wood to build still more boats in the impoverished and largely deforested nation.

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'There is a substantial increase in the number of boats ready to go, ' the newspaper quoted from a Coast Guard intelligence report based on evidence from a Nov. 6 overflight.

The preparations come as Haitians anticipate a change in U.S. policy toward them under the Clinton administration.

A Coast Guard commander in Miami sounded a note of skepticism, however.

Lt. Cmdr. Jim Howe, who was not briefed on the intelligence report, said it would be hard to tell whether the new boats are intended for normal commerce and fishing as opposed to ferrying refugees.

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'I'm not sure there's anything that shows there's any extraordinary building activity going on,' he said.

The Coast Guard overflight was the first in several months, leaving questions about how quickly the new boats are being built.

But other signs were ominous. There has been increased travel to La Gonave, an island of 60,000 inhabitants that is traditionally a launching spot for Haitian refugees, the newspaper said. Last week Haitian authorities foiled attempts to hijack two ferries to the island.

'We are expecting an exodus,' the newspaper quoted an unidentified American official as saying. 'It's going to make the Mariel thing look like a picnic.'

During the 1980 Mariel boatlift, 125,000 Cuban refugees arrived in Florida over four months, when Cuban President Fidel Castro allowed or forced political dissidents, felons and mental patients to leave Cuba.

The Mariel boatlift presented south Florida with its worse immigration crisis and helped cripple the re-election bid of President Carter.

Even so, the Mariel outflow was under Castro's control. U.S. officials said they could not rely on Haiti's government to curb the chaos and peril of an exodus.

President-elect Clinton pledged Thursday to alter U.S. policy toward Haitian boat people, which mandates immediate repatriation without allowing them to apply for political asylum. President Bush implemented the policy in May.

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Clinton did not release specifics of his plan but said the United States should provide 'temporary asylum' to Haitian refugees 'until we restored the elected government of Haiti.'

Dee Dee Myers, press secretary for the Clinton transition team, said the president-elect is aware of reports that his stance is encouraging Haitian refugees.

'They'll watch it very closely and wait to see what happens,' she said.

Since Haiti's democratically elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, was ousted in a military coup 14 months ago, the U.S. Coast Guard has intercepted 38,322 Haitian boat people. Of those, 28,195 were repatriated and immigration officials are reviewing asylum claims for the rest.

In Haiti Friday, several of those who were repatriated under the Bush policy said they would consider setting out again when Clinton takes office.

'We will wait for Clinton in January,' said Gaston Ferrimori, a resident of Ange-a-Veau, aut 80 miles south of Port-au-Prince. 'We don't want to go with that criminal Bush.'

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