U.S. forces arrive in Haiti

By CARMEN GENTILE, UPI Correspondent  |  March 1, 2004 at 3:04 AM
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PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti, March 1 (UPI) -- The first contingent of U.S. Marines arrived in Haiti Sunday night, where they are expected to restore order following the resignation of the embattled nation's president, a move that prompted widespread violence and bloodshed.

As to the whereabouts of Aristide, after signing a letter of resignation and departing from Haiti on Sunday morning, CNN reported Monday that he had arrived in the Central African Republic. How long he would stay and what his status would be there remained unclear.

After deploying troops to the Caribbean nation, U.S. President George Bush said, "The government believes it is essential that Haiti have a hopeful future. This is the beginning of a new chapter. I would urge the people of Haiti to reject violence, to give this break from the past a chance to work. And the United States is prepared to help."

France is also said to be sending troops and Canadian officials said they would be willing to join an international stabilization force aimed at ending the violence that erupted earlier in the day when now former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide fled the country, days after vowing he would never leave.

The country's continuing spiral into chaos appeared to change his mind after three-and-a-half weeks of shootings that left more than 100 people dead. Earlier this month, rebels aimed at ousting Aristide took over the port city of Gonaive in the north. Since Feb. 5, they have systematically gone from town to town forcing local police to abandon their stations or be killed in an effort to wrest control of the entire nation.

Their objective, according to rebel leader Guy Philippe -- a former military commander accused of attempting a coup in 2001 -- was to force the president to resign, and in the event that he didn't, to arrest him themselves.

Aristide's detractors -- both his political opponents and the rebels -- accuse the former priest of corruption and human rights violations. Though the politicians and the rebels are not formally aligned, they do agree Aristide's ascension to power for the second time came during an erroneous vote.

The 50-year-old former Haitian leader was elected in the early 1990's for the first time and later deposed in a coup. Then U.S. President Bill Clinton sent 20,000 troops to Haiti to restore him to office in 1994. Two years later, his handpicked successor won the office, though was seen largely as a puppet for Aristide.

Many members of the rebel forces now prowling the capital and completing their conquest of the island were former soldiers in the Haitian army and paramilitaries loyal to Aristide until just recently.

Their decision to switch sides and take up arms against the president prompted many former soldiers to come out of hiding, many of whom had taken up residence in the neighboring Dominican Republic.

From the beginning of this conflict, the White House appeared uninterested in supporting another attempt at keeping Aristide in power. Allegations of involvement in international drug smuggling coupled with a deplorable human rights record made it difficult for anyone in the international community to back him.

However leading up to his flight Sunday, the streets of Port-au-Prince were crowded with ardent Aristide supporters who said they would stand by their president to the end even if the rebels tried to depose him.

"We are not afraid to die for our country and Aristide ... we will die with him in our arms," said Christian Pierre outside the presidential palace just a day before the Haitian leader fled the country.

Many of Haiti's poor rallied their hopes for real democracy around Aristide and professed to adore him for integrating the masses, who were once excluded at every level, as one supporter put it.

They lauded him for attempting to bring people of various economic backgrounds into the government fold and for channeling funds into poverty reduction projects and generating jobs.

But the effects in his two terms as president were not enough to convince all sectors of Haitian society that Aristide was really the answer to Haiti's continuing woes. The Maryland-sized nation is one of the poorest in the hemisphere, where many people earn less than $1 a day.

That didn't prevent some of Aristede's most passionate -- and often paid -- supporters from taking violent measures to ensure that Haitians in the capital kept supporting him.

Known locally as the Chimere, armed militants loyal to Aristide roamed the capital with impunity for weeks, taking over the duties of the police and killing citizens suspected of not backing the president.

Chimere, whose ranks included young men and teenage boys, roamed Port-au-Prince looting and robbing with impunity until Sunday afternoon when the police and rebels appeared to join forces in an attempt to rid the city of armed Aristide loyalists.

The sweep will likely take weeks, if not months. Police managed to secure parts of the downtown area Sunday while the rebels made their presence known in another part of town.

Witnesses for United Press International said the rebels entered the city with military-style precision, many of them carrying sophisticated weaponry though other recruits brandished bolt-action rifles.

Their leader vowed earlier that the rebels would put down their weapons when a new government was in place.

"I think the worst is over," rebel leader Guy Philippe told CNN.

Haiti showed some signs of a return to democracy Sunday when the nation followed constitutional procedure and appointed the country's next in command as head of state.

Supreme Court Chief Justice Boniface Alexandre was sworn in later in the day. He said that Haitians still had a lot of work ahead of them.

"The task will not be an easy one," said Alexandre, warning that no one "should take justice into their own hands."

U.S. and other troops are expected to once again recreate the basic conditions for democracy to try and take hold in a nation that has seen more than 30 coups in its 200-year history.

By dawn on Monday, forces had established their presence in key points of the city, though it remained uncertain if they would work in conjunction with civil authorities here and ask the rebels to put down their arms. The potential for conflict among the U.S. troops, pro-Aristide militants, rebels and police -- all trying to assert their own agenda -- has the makings of dangerous and deadly encounters in the days to come.

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