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US mulls sending three warships, marines to Haiti
Updated: 2004-02-28 11:38

The United States is considering sending three warships with about 2,000 U.S. Marines, headed by the helicopter carrier USS Saipan, to rebellion-torn Haiti as the Pentagon weighs options to address the crisis, defense officials said on Friday.

Members of the U.S. special forces sit in the back of a truck, form part of a convoy which delivered people to the Dominican Embassy for evacuation from Port-au-Prince, February 27, 2004. [Reuters]
The officials said no deployment orders had been issued to send the Amphibious Ready Group led by the Saipan from Norfolk, Virginia, to the impoverished Caribbean nation where President Jean-Bertrand Aristide faces an armed revolt. But they called that one of the options being considered.

"They are at a state of readiness that allows them to be able to deploy, if called upon, within a matter of days," said Navy Lt. Jim Hoeft, a spokesman for the Fleet Forces Command, referring to the Saipan group.

A Marine Corps official said the 2,200-strong 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit from Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, was "prepared to deploy" if such an order came.

The Saipan is an amphibious assault ship that carries helicopters and AV-8B Harrier attack jets. The other two ships are the dock-landing ship USS Oak Hill and the amphibious transport dock USS Trenton, the officials said.

If ordered to sail, it would take about two days for those ships to reach Haiti, one official said.

"If the president (George W. Bush) decides to take action, the Navy needs to be ready," said another Navy official, speaking on condition of anonymity.


Defense officials identified a range of options being explored.

One possibility was to send the three ships and Marines to the Haitian coast and then put Marines on the ground in Haiti to protect Americans and U.S. facilities, or potentially to serve as a peacekeeping force depending on political developments, officials said. Officials said far fewer than 2,000 Marines -- if any -- might be put ashore.

Another option was to send ships without large numbers of Marines merely for maritime interdiction or to support U.S. Coast Guard ships trying to prevent a mass exodus of Haitian refugees to the United States, officials said. A third option was to take no further military action, officials added.

A senior State Department official downplayed the chances of an immediate deployment of ships and Marines, saying, "It does not make sense at this point for a variety of reasons," which the official did not specify.

The Miami-based U.S. Southern Command last week sent a four-member security assessment team to examine the safety of the U.S. Embassy in Haiti. On Monday, Southern Command sent about 50 Marines to Haiti to protect the embassy in the capital, Port-au-Prince.

The rebels edged closer to the capital while supporters of Aristide mounted defenses on Friday.

The United States sent 20,000 troops to Haiti in 1994 to restore Aristide to power after a coup.

Pentagon officials have not been enthusiastic about a military mission in Haiti. The U.S. military is stretched thin by operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Bush administration came under pressure from some congressional Democrats to take quick military action. "U.S. leadership means deploying a security force -- preferably multilaterally -- before it is too late. That means within the next 24 to 48 hours," said Sen. Christopher Dodd of Connecticut.

Florida Republican Rep. Mark Foley urged the United Nations to "take immediate action to stop the bloodshed in Haiti" by sending an international force to halt the violence and prevent a mass exodus of Haitians to Florida's shores.

The Pentagon last summer sent a similar three-ship group with about 2,000 Marines to the coast of Liberia amid political turmoil in the West African country. Pariah leader Charles Taylor flew into exile in August and most of the Marines never set foot on land.

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