PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti, March 2 (UPI) -- Rebel forces entered the heart of the capital -- setting up positions at the national police station -- amid cheers from thousands who expressed their joy at the departure of the nation's ex-president and his loyal gunmen.
The arrival of former military officer Guy Philippe -- the 36-year-old who led a failed coup attempt in 2001 -- marked the culmination of a three-and-a-half week rebellion that began in the north and spread south with one objective in mind: the resignation of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.
The former Catholic priest fled the country early Sunday when it became apparent Aristide's power base had been reduced to relying on armed militant gangs known as Chimere to enforce his popularity on the streets.
Consisting mainly of armed men and teenage boys, the Chimere -- named after the fierce mythical creature -- had ruled the capital with impunity for weeks, executing dozens of Haitians suspected of disloyalty to Aristide.
Former members of the defunct Haitian military, Philippe and his followers promised to return order to the country. He started out by promising to literally begin Haiti's cleanup process at the presidential palace.
"I think the worst is over," he said before entering the capital. The rebels, who want to re-institute the Haitian military, said they would hand over control to the president once a new government was in place.
"This is not an occupation," rebel spokesman Paul Asselin told United Press International Monday from the police headquarters as it was mobbed by thousands of franticly enthused Haitians.
"Today is a great day for all Haitians," said a joyous Valentine Francique outside the station. The 22-year student said he was threatened by the armed thugs in recent weeks as were many other university students accused of disloyalty to Aristide.
Some of his classmates however said they were still worried that the Chimere that had gone into hiding since the rebels and U.S. forces arrived would one day return to exact their revenge.
"They're still hiding among us," said one young man.
Their apprehension was understandable considering where they stood Monday amid the celebrations.
For weeks the plaza between the police station and the presidential palace had been the exclusive stomping ground of the pro-Aristide supporters and the Chimere. The neighborhoods surrounding both were hotbeds for the armed gunmen. Evidence of their brutal tactics was evident on the streets every day in the form of bullet-riddled bodies.
The rebels and police had been battling it out with the Chimere on Sunday in different parts of the city. This time it was the Chimere that were on the run. UPI counted at least 20 dead in the two days since Aristide fled, bringing the death toll to around 120 since the rebels seized the port city of Gonaive on Feb. 5.
Meanwhile, U.S. Marines touched down at the Port-au-Prince international airport some time during the night and were joined by French and Canadian forces there.
According to Col. Dave Berger, the U.S. forces were there to "secure key sites in the capital" and "people who interfere with that mission, we will handle with appropriate force."
Berger told UPI he didn't have a particular message for the rebels or the Chimere, only that the same applied to any group regarding interference as Marines went about taking up their mission here.
Berger said between 150 and 200 Marines were on the ground at the airport, a small force to augment the efforts of the 50 Marines that arrived last week and took up position at the U.S. Embassy in the capital.
At the Pentagon in Washington, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said that 1,500 to 2,000 U.S. troops were headed to Haiti for a relatively short stint.
The secretary's remarks came a day after the U.N. Security Council unanimously approved a resolution Sunday authorizing a Multinational Interim Force for Haiti, effective immediately.
The MIF will be allowed to stay for up to three months before it has to make way for a U.N. force.
Asked what kind of signal this sends to the people of Haiti, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan told reporters it tells them, "The international community has not forgotten them; We understand their need and we are standing by them in their hour of need. And the international community will do whatever they can to help stabilize the situation. I know some of them may think that it's a bit late, but it's always better than never."
The deployment also spells the almost certain end for Aristide who was overthrown in the early 1990's and restored to authority in 1994 when President Bill Clinton ordered 20,000 troops to Haiti to restore the president.
Widely accused of corruption and human rights abuses, President Bush urged Aristide in recent days to resign.
The now former president is taking up residence in the Central African Republic, where he accused the United States of orchestrating his ousting, an allegation Washington denied.