Haiti’s rebel leader said on Tuesday he does not want to install a military dictatorship but is seeking to re-establish the army that was disbanded after ousting President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 1991.
With the rebels threatening to attack the capital of Port-au-Prince, the United States has tried to broker a last-ditch peace plan that does not require Aristide to resign. Opposition politicians were weighing the plan, after being persuaded by US Secretary of State Colin Powell to delay their formal response until late Tuesday afternoon.
Rebel leader Guy Philippe, still in the second-largest city of Cap-Haitien that was seized on Sunday, said his movement wants to re-establish the army but is not interested in installing another dictatorship in Haiti.
A military dictatorship is “not good for the country”, said Philippe, the former national police chief. “The military should stay in the barracks.”
Even if the opposition coalition accepts the US peace plan, there is no guarantee the rebels will accept. Philippe said he has “informal” contact with the opposition.
Opposition leaders said they share the rebel goals, but they are a non-violent movement and are not allied with the rebels. Aristide maintains that opposition factions are supporting the rebellion and the rebels are an armed wing of the political opposition.
Philippe said he was on his way to the financial institution Western Union, which handles money transfers, to pick up donations being sent by Haitians in the US and Canada. He said his rebellion also was being funded by businessmen in Haiti.
An attack on Port-au-Prince was unlikely on Tuesday, Philippe said, although he said preparations were continuing. He said his fighters had spent the night searching in vain for government forces.
French President Jacques Chirac said on Tuesday his country is ready to consider contributing to any eventual peacekeeping force approved by the United Nations.
“France does not exclude contributing to a civilian force for peace,” he said, adding however that such a deployment “depends on a decision of the Security Council”.
In Port-au-Prince on Monday, about 50 US marines in full battle gear rushed off a US Air Force transport plane and secured a perimeter around the international airport. Some Haitians stood on cars or high walls to peer at them.
The marines then drove to the US embassy in a convoy of trucks and cars. Western diplomats and a Defence Department official said their mission was to protect the US embassy and staff.
Ten years ago, the US sent 20Â 000 troops to end a military dictatorship that had ousted Aristide in 1991, a year after he became Haiti’s first freely elected leader. But Washington has made clear it won’t commit a large number of troops this time.
Aristide, hugely popular when he was elected especially among the destitute in the western hemisphere’s poorest country, has since lost a lot of support. Opponents accuse the former priest of failing to help those in need, condoning corruption and masterminding attacks on opponents by armed gangs. Aristide denies the charges. Flawed legislative elections in 2000 led international donors to freeze millions of dollars in aid.
Evans Paul, a leading opponent once allied with Aristide, said the international community was hinting it would call for Aristide’s resignation if he failed to respect the terms of the peace plan, which calls for him to share power.
Aristide’s supporters, fearing the rebels would move on the capital after taking Cap-Haitien, set up flaming barricades to block a key road outside Port-au-Prince.
“We are ready to resist, with anything we have — rocks, machetes,” said a teacher guarding one roadblock, who gave his name only as Rincher.
Rebels in Cap-Haitien, meanwhile, hunted down militants loyal to Aristide on Monday, accusing them of terrorising the population in the days before the city fell.
“I am a brick mason, I didn’t do anything wrong,” Jean-Bernard Prevalis (33) pleaded as he was dragged away, head bleeding.
“We’re going to clean the city of all chimeres,” said rebel Dieusauver Magustin (26). Chimere, which means ghost, is used to describe hardcore Aristide militants.
It was not clear what would happen to those detained. One rebel said they were saving them from lynching. But another, Claudy Philippe, said: “The people show us the [chimere] houses. If they are there, we execute them.”
Thousands of people demonstrated in favor of the rebellion, chanting “Aristide get out!” and “Goodbye Aristide.”
Looting continued in the city on Monday, although some rebels tried to scare off looters with warning shots. The 800 tons of food in the United Nations World Food Programme warehouse was plundered, according to the agency’s Andrea Bagnoli, and people torched the home of pro-Aristide Mayor Wilmar Innocent.
Cap-Haitien is just 150km north of Port-au-Prince, but is a seven-hour drive over potholed roads sometimes reduced to bedrock.
Premier Yvon Neptune appealed to the political opposition coalition to agree to the peace plan, which Aristide has accepted.
The plan would allow him to remain president with diminished powers, sharing with political rivals a government that would organise elections.
More than half of Haiti now is beyond the control of the central government. The takeover of Cap-Haitien by about 200 fighters was the most significant victory since the uprising erupted on February 5. At least 17 were killed in Sunday’s fighting, raising the toll to about 70 dead and dozens wounded in the revolt. — Sapa-AP
Associated Press reporters Michael Norton and Mark Stevenson contributed to this story from Port-au-Prince.