WASHINGTON -- The Bush administration dispatched a military task force to the Caribbean last night to erect an emergency refugee camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, for thousands of Haitians who have fled the political turmoil in their -- country and whose exodus by boats to the United States has been blocked by the Coast Guard.
Led by Brig. Gen. George A. Walls Jr. of the Marines, the military group, made up of hundreds of troops from all four military services, is to build a tent city at the American base on the eastern tip of Cuba to handle the more than 4,000 Haitians rescued at sea thus far and the hundreds more fleeing each day.
A senior Pentagon official said yesterday's action could be open-ended and the size of the tent city was as yet undetermined.
"We need to unload the Coast Guard and Navy ships because they are overwhelmed right now," the official said, referring to the Haitians being plucked from the sea by United States vessels.
Word of the plan came as the crisis in Haiti deepened. Hopes for a political settlement suffered a setback and the flood of refugees increased dramatically.
The State Department reported 815 Haitians were rescued by the Coast Guard on Sunday, the largest single-day total since the exodus began almost a month ago.
NBC News reported that the exodus had so "overwhelmed the Coast Guard . . . that drug smuggling from South America is virtually being ignored."
"Coast Guard officials said that seven of its large cutters are so overcrowded with Haitians that they are not safe to sail and are anchored in Guantanamo Bay awaiting the emergency camp," NBC reported.
"Twelve other cutters still on patrol . . . are filling rapidly with the desperate migrants."
Responding to the growing flood of Haitian refugees and to a Florida judge's decision prohibiting the United States from turning them back, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Colin L. Powell yesterday ordered the military to prepare shelters, sanitary facilities and medical care for thousands of Haitians.
But even as General Powell established the military task force, defense officials fretted that the military's growing role could cause a fresh hemorrhage of Haitian refugees.
"You've got a potential for a Mariel Boatlift operation once the Haitians hear that they'll be taken care of as soon as they get into international waters," said one Department of Defense official.
"Once it starts, we're all concerned -- the Justice Department, too -- with how many will come out and whether we'll have the facilities and care they'll need."
In 1980, the Mariel Boatlift brought 118,000 Cubans to the United States in a three-month period after Cuban President Fidel Castro briefly allowed Cubans to emigrate. The sudden influx of refugees, most of them poor and some with criminal records, caused severe strain on the local, state and federal governments in the United States that were called on to absorb them.
A defense official said that 100 medical professionals were to leave their bases yesterday night and that the force dispatched to deal with Haitians in Guantanamo could expand quickly to 800.
Many of Guantanamo Bay's 1,900 established buildings, which are spread out across a 31-square-mile area in the southeast corner of Cuba, will be equipped immediately to house between 2,500 and 3,000 Haitian refugees. Tents and other temporary shelters will be erected as needed, defense officials said.
Already, Coast Guard and Navy ships have taken some 3,200 Haitians aboard. Over the weekend, 1,637 Haitians were plucked from overloaded sailboats, joining about 2,000 others being held on the decks of U.S. Coast Guard cutters, on at least two U.S. Navy ships, and at Guantanamo Naval Base.
While the military has not chosen further sites to house refugees, officials said that additional bases and additional military personnel could be mobilized if greater numbers of Haitians take to the open seas.
Little progress was made toward a political settlement during weekend talks in Cartagena, Colombia, between ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide and parliamentarians.
The parliamentarians agreed in principle to restore democracy but refused to commit themselves to Father Aristide's return to power.
The Pentagon's expanded role in support of an overwhelmed U.S. Coast Guard follows a weekend of intense discussions between U.S. Department of Justice attorneys and lawyers representing the Haitian exiles. Yesterday, Cheryl Little, attorney for Miami's Haitian Refugee Center, would say only that "negotiations are continuing" over how to accommodate the fleeing Haitians. "We are not going to settle for anything that doesn't convince us that the rights of the Haitians are being protected," Ms. Little added.
A lawsuit filed by Ms. Little last Tuesday led to a federal judge's order halting forced repatriation of Haitians. That order will remain in effect at least until Dec. 3.
President Bush has defended his administration's initial decision send the Haitians back to their poor homeland, calling them economic, rather than political, refugees.
The U.S. Coast Guard rescued a record number of Haitians from homemade sailboats during the weekend:
* Sunday: 815 (highest number for one day)
* Saturday: 383
* Friday: 439
& * Weekend total: 1,637