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Haiti rebels flex muscles, US warns
Updated: 2004-03-03 09:29

One of Haiti's rebel leaders defied the United States and declared himself chief of the military and police on Tuesday, and his ragtag band of fighters tried to arrest the prime minister.

The presence of U.S. forces, part of a Marine deployment sent by President Bush on Sunday hours after President Jean-Bertrand Aristide fled into exile in the face of a month-long revolt, prevented self-styled leader Guy Phillipe's men from seizing Prime Minister Yvon Neptune, an Aristide appointee.

As the seeds of possible tensions were sown between the U.S.-led force and the former soldiers and accused death squad leaders who helped oust Haiti's first elected leader, Washington warned the rebels to toe the line.

"All illegal and armed groups should lay down their arms. The rebels need to disband and go back to their homes," said State Department spokesman Richard Boucher.

But Philippe, speaking at a news conference earlier, said he was Haiti's military leader. Hundreds of rebels, many in military fatigues and brandishing automatic weapons, have entered the capital city since Aristide flew to Africa.

"I am commander-in-chief of the national resistance front, military chief," the former police chief, 36, said, surrounded by his gunmen and members of the Haitian National Police.

He also said he would obey the orders of acting president Boniface Alexandre, who took over as stipulated by the constitution but whose appointment has been questioned because of the absence of a parliament to approve it.

At the same time, he appeared to warn Alexandre when he said that the "people of Haiti will talk to him as they talked to Aristide" unless he creates a new army.

Asked who had named him Haiti's security chief, Philippe merely said, "The Haitian people."


The U.S. military in Haiti would step up it presence in the streets in response to Philippe's declarations, Col. David Berger, commander of the multinational force, told reporters.

In a sign that the rebels were not in total control, they failed in a bid to arrest Neptune. A rebel convoy arrived at Neptune's house in Port-au-Prince, but turned away after seeing U.S. forces guarding the residence.

The presence of former death gang leaders among the rebels' leadership has alarmed human rights activists, who were further dismayed on Tuesday at news that deposed dictator Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier wanted to return as soon as possible.

With victory behind them, the rebel's popularity in a land frequently ruled by armed strongmen since independence from France 200 years ago was on display.

One of their leaders, Louis Jodel Chamblain, whose right-wing militia killed thousands during a military regime in the early 1990s, was mobbed on Tuesday by adoring fans, who demanded his autograph as he sat on the roof of a car in the upscale suburb of Petionville.

Several thousand people demonstrated outside the U.S.-guarded National Palace in support of the rebels. The gleaming white presidential office in the middle of the peeling and impoverished city had been a symbol of Aristide's power.

Philippe said he welcomed the U.S. troops, who are spearheading a U.N. force to bring order to a country convulsed by an uprising that claimed some 80 lives. The Pentagon said it will send up to 2,000 troops to head a force of around 5,000, but hopes to hand over its leadership to another country.

Washington is trying to create a council of a dozen prominent Haitians to organize early elections and says its forces will work to disarm the rebels.


Despite the ill omens, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said in Washington the situation had calmed down. "The forces that were opposing Aristide seem to have made a conscious decision to behave and that's a good thing," he said.

About 500 Marines were to be on the ground by late Tuesday, guarding the airport and other sites such as a looted port. Col. Berger said, "I have no instruction to disarm the rebels."

Dozens of rebels occupied the former military headquarters -- turned by Aristide into a women's ministry and museum. They threw crucifixes from one window, and claimed they found a "Voodoo" room used by the ex-president.

Aristide disbanded the army, which was behind a series of coups, in the 1990s, leaving law and order to a poorly equipped police force that collapsed during the rebel onslaught.

Torn by 32 coups in the past two centuries, long-simmering political tensions in Haiti erupted into armed revolt on Feb. 5 when an armed gang took over the northwestern city of Gonaives and was later joined by ex-soldiers and paramilitaries.

Aristide went into exile in the Central African Republic and charged that he was kidnapped in an American coup d'etat, an allegation U.S. officials dismissed as baseless nonsense but which may give a political boost to Aristide supporters.

"Our vote was stolen. We elected Aristide for five years. His term was not completed so he is still our president," 19-year-old Patrick Sanon said in a poor district that was a center of an Aristide state housing project.

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