Marines watch as Haiti turns wild

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Marines watch as Haiti turns wild

Post by admin » Thu Mar 04, 2004 12:19 pm

St Petersburg Times, 3 March 04

Marines watch as Haiti turns wild

Despite stern U.S. warnings, the rebel leader lets soldiers run amok and gives orders to the new president.


PORT-AU-PRINCE - Three days after President Jean-Bertrand Aristide flew into exile, it is becoming increasingly difficult to tell who controls the country.

As troops from the United States, France and Canada continued to trickle into Haiti as part of a small, multinational security force, power-drunk soldiers from the country's rebel army went on a citywide rampage Tuesday after declaring themselves the "liberators" of a "free Haiti."

The U.S. Marines, numbering about 450 along with 125 French soldiers and 50 Canadian troops as of late Tuesday, were mostly unable to do anything to stop them.

"I am the chief
," declared rebel leader Guy Philippe, a disgraced former police chief who is accused by U.S. officials of drug dealing. Philippe, who now calls himself the commanding "general" of the so-called National Front for the Liberation of Haiti, defied anyone to challenge the moral authority of his victorious ragtag army, claiming he spoke for "the people in the streets."

In a brief press conference at a local hotel surrounded by heavily armed rebels and members of the national police, he boasted that his men now controlled the entire country as well as 80 percent of the country's 5,000-member police force.

U.S. officials in Washington reiterated previous statements Tuesday discrediting Philippe and saying he has no role to play in the new government.

Philippe "is not in control of anything but a ragtag band of people," said Assistant U.S. Secretary of State Roger Noriega. The international military buildup in Haiti will make Philippe's role "less and l
ess central in Haitian life. And I think he will probably want to make himself scarce," Noriega told the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

" We have sent that message to him. He obviously hasn't received it. "

So far, at least, the United States appears unwilling or unable to bring Philippe to heel.

" I have no instructions to disarm the rebels, " said Col. Dave Berger, commander of the small force of U.S. Marines that was expected to reach 500 by Tuesday night. " That's a Haitian problem, " he added.

But Philippe and his rebel army are fast becoming Washington's problem too.

"The way it is unfolding, I can't believe the U.S. is going to accept this," said Robert Maguire, director of Haitian studies at Trinity College in Washington, D.C. "This is a society that is totally lawless."

In the
afternoon, Marines raced to the offices of Haiti's prime minister, Yvon Neptune, after Philippe's men announced they planned to arrest and prosecute him on corruption charges. The Marines got there just in time as a caravan of pickups loaded with armed rebels came barreling up the hill toward the office.

Standing at the padlocked gates at the bottom of a tree-lined road leading up to the prime minister's office, the U.S. Embassy deputy chief of mission, Luis Moreno, tersely told reporters: "They are closed."

Moreno is playing a lead role in the U.S. efforts on the ground to stabilize the country and secure a smooth transition of power. It was Moreno who met with Aristide shortly before his departure Sunday to warn him it was time to leave, as Philippe's rebel army was poised to attack the city.

The rebels chose not to defy the Marines, and instead went across town to arrest a detested Aristide loyalist, Rene Civil, the widely reputed head of the progovernment gangs known as the chime

But the chaotic tone of the day was surely set by Philippe's arrival outside a colonnaded downtown building that was once the headquarters of the disbanded Haitian Armed Forces. It now houses the Museum of Independence, and a collection of Haitian art. Greeted by a cheering mob of former army soldiers looking to get their old jobs back, he told the adoring audience that he was their man.

He then watched as rebels ransacked the building, throwing valuable paintings and an entire exhibition of 86 voodoo dolls and art over a second-floor balcony into the crowd.

Chanting "Up with Jesus, down with Satan," the crowd proceeded to burn the works in a giant voodoo bonfire.

"We burned it because anything that was created during the Aristide government has to be destroyed," said the Rev. Vladimir Jeanty, a well-dressed religious fanatic and founder of the Haitian Party of God.

"This is a sad day for Haitian culture," said Haiti's acti
ng culture minister, Leslie Voltaire. The exhibit opened Jan. 1 to commemorate the country's 200th anniversary of independence and had been widely acclaimed as the country's first major showcasing of Haitian voodoo art, including unique works by a deceased voodoo houngan (priest), Pierre Barra.

"Haiti is a country of life and art. They cannot destroy life or art," said Voltaire, whose distraught wife organized the exhibit.

But the rebels appear to care little about either. Their chief stated goal is the reconstitution of the country's notorious armed forces, disbanded by Aristide. Dissolving the Haitian military was one of Aristide's chief accomplishments after he was restored to power by U.S. troops in 1994. It was replaced by a new, U.S.-trained civilian police force, which was later
undermined by political squabbling and corruption.

Philippe, who quit the police in October 2000 to go into exile, now plans to turn the clock back. Tuesday, he virtually ordered the country's new p
resident, Supreme Court chief justice Boniface Alexandre, to reinstate the armed forces, claiming its demobilization by Aristide had been unconstitutional.

In a thinly veiled threat, he advised Alexandre to heed his words, otherwise, "the people of Haiti will speak to him the way they spoke to Aristide."

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