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Confusion rules Haiti; rebels rejoice

Exiled President Aristide says the United States forced him out. "Nonsense," says the White House.

By DAVID ADAMS, Times Latin America Correspondent
Published March 2, 2004

[Times photo: John Pendygraft]
Myriam Merlet, facing camera, hugs Magali Compau-Denis as they celebrate Monday near the presidential palace in Port-au-Prince.

PORT-AU-PRINCE - After the first night of calm in several days, residents of this garbage-strewn city began trying to put their lives back together under a new president - and under the watchful eye of a small, international peacekeeping force.

But sorting out the country's political transition after former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide fled Sunday was fraught with uncertainty.

Aristide lashed out at the United States on Monday, accusing the Bush administration of staging a coup d'etat and sending American security agents to force him out at gunpoint.

"I was forced to leave," Aristide said during an interview with the Associated Press.

"Agents were telling me that if I don't leave they would start shooting and killing in a matter of time." It was unclear whether Aristide meant that rebels or U.S. agents would begin shooting.

A White House spokesman denied the allegation, calling it "nonsense." Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Secretary of State Colin Powell both insisted that Aristide had left on his own free will.

"He was not kidnapped. We did not force him on the airplane. He went on the plane willingly," Powell told CNN.

Aristide was put in contact with AP by the Rev. Jesse Jackson on Monday after a news conference in Atlanta, where the civil rights leader called on Congress to investigate Aristide's ouster.

The exiled president spoke from the Central African Republic, where he was expected to remain for now.

Meanwhile, confusion on the ground in Haiti tangled the U.S.-led peacekeeping effort. Only hours after the first company of 150 U.S. Marines touched down at the deserted International Airport, they got their first taste of chaos.

Marine Col. Dave Berger had just finished telling reporters not to expect to see his small contingent of men patrolling the streets for a few days while they set up camp. Moments later Marines in Humvees raced to the presidential palace a few miles away to prevent it from being stormed by rebels.

The rebels, who had driven through the night from their bases in the north of the country, were greeted as conquering heroes by thousands of jubilant Haitians outside the palace.

People clapped and waved as they yelled "Good job!" and "Aristide is gone" as the convoy of vehicles parked across the street and entered the national police headquarters. Some of the rebels, who call themselves the National Resistance Army for the Liberation of Haiti, were carried in the air like rock stars.

A half-dozen Marines in combat fatigues and carrying assault rifles could be seen on the palace grounds. The rebels and the Marines did not approach each other.

Not everyone seemed pleased to see them. Some watched indifferently from street corners, with arms folded. As word spread that Aristide might have been forced out, some Haitians began questioning what had really occurred in the final hours before his departure. Some asked why Aristide had not made a public address before agreeing to leave. They also demanded to see his resignation letter, which has yet to be published.

U.S. officials say the confusion stemmed from Aristide's request for State Department diplomatic security agents to accompany him to the airport. Aristide left with the escort after he was visited by a senior diplomat from the U.S. Embassy late Saturday, who was sent to deliver a grim message, officials say. The president's life was in grave danger, he told Aristide. If rebels massing in the north attacked the capital, the diplomat warned Aristide, the Bush administration could not guarantee his safety.

The president's private U.S. security firm, Steele Foundation of San Francisco, also was advised that they would have to face the rebels alone.

When the rebels did finally enter the city Monday they were in no mood to fight. Instead, they headed straight for meetings with leaders of Haiti's political opposition and Haitian police chiefs at the Rancho Hotel in the wealthy suburb of Petionville. They showed no signs of honoring their oft-stated promise to lay down their guns after Aristide left power.

"We are the law and order from now on," said one rebel leader, Paul Arcelin, 60, a former political scientist who was appointed as ambassador to the Dominican Republic by Haiti's military rulers in 1991. "We control the country. You will be happy with us."

The arrival of the rebels appeared to throw a wrench in the Bush administration's plans for Haiti's political transition.

On Sunday, at the swearing in of Haiti's new president, former Supreme Court head Boniface Alexandre, the transition appeared to have gotten off to a good start. Aristide's prime minister agreed to stay on temporarily, along with members of his cabinet.

U.S. Ambassador James Foley also announced that a previously agreed action plan for national reconciliation would be put into effect, involving the creation of a tripartite commission made up of opposition figures, members of Aristide's ruling Lavalas Family Party and members of the international community.

But by Sunday night opposition leaders issued a statement recognizing the rebels as legitimate participants in future talks.

The Bush administration insists that the rebels will have no role in the action plan, dismissing them last week as a bunch of "thugs" and "gangsters" who would soon be disarmed. But now that the rebels control most of the country, Washington may have a hard time sidelining them.

"Some of these individuals we would not want to see re-enter civil society in Haiti because of their past records and this is something we will have to work through," Powell said Monday.

Rebel leader Guy Philippe, a former Haitian police chief, faces allegations of drug trafficking. One rebel leader also was convicted in absentia of heading death squads that killed Aristide followers when the Haitian military ousted Aristide in 1991. Aristide was restored by U.S. troops in 1994.

The opposition also seemed to be at a loss on how to deal with the rebel army, as soldiers in military fatigues carrying an assortment of weapons lounged by a hotel pool eating hamburgers. The rebel presence had distorted the transition process, said one of the principal opposition leaders, businessman Andy Apaid.

Rebel leaders appear bent on reconstituting the Haitian Armed Forces, which were disbanded 10 years ago by Aristide - and with U.S. assistance - as part of the process of restoring democracy.

Some rebel vehicles were already carrying makeshift stickers on their windshields marked "Armed Forces of Haiti." The U.S. had better get used to the idea, said one rebel carrying an M-4 automatic rifle. He identified himself only as Faustin.

If the U.S. tries to interfere in rebels' plans, he warned, "We will have another 20 years of hell here."

To make matters worse, mobs of Haitians were already busy settling political scores after weeks of violence in which more than 100 people have been killed. The house of Prime Minister Yvon Neptune on the outskirts of the city was burned and ransacked by looters on Sunday soon after Aristide fled the country.

Aristide's house also was pillaged. A grand piano was dragged out onto the courtyard of the three-story villa, then abandoned. Family and school pictures lay among the disorder. Broken plates littered the area by the pool.

Students who led the 2-month-old protests against Aristide also took to the streets Monday shouting pro-American slogans and calling for Neptune's arrest.

"We want to say thank you to Mr. Bush and the international community," said student Donald Corrvil, 23. "But we want Aristide to be judged for his crimes. He has to give back all the money he stole."

Businesses remained closed as they have been since late last week, including gas stations, many of which were burned during the looting. Banks and stores were shuttered. Broken glass lay in the streets outside the ransacked offices of Vision 2000 radio station, accused of pro-opposition sympathies by supporters of Aristide. The scene was the same outside Tele-Haiti, the country's main cable television network, which was one of the last places to be attacked by the angry progovernment gangs, known as chimeres, the night before Aristide left.

- Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.

[Last modified March 2, 2004, 01:44:59]

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