U.S. assault ship heads to Caribbean

May 18, 1994|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- Piling the pressure on Haiti's military dictatorship, an amphibious assault ship left Norfolk, Va., yesterday to take 650 Marines on an eight-week training voyage to the Caribbean.

The USS Wasp -- a small aircraft carrier that carries helicopters -- is the designated command ship for the U.N. naval embargo against Haitian oil and arms imports. Rear Adm. John J. Mazach, who would command any military intervention on the island, was aboard the vessel.

But Navy officials insisted that the Wasp's departure had been ++ scheduled in January, long before the United Nations set a deadline of Saturday for the departure of Haiti's military dictators under the ultimatum of total economic sanctions.

Although the Clinton administration has said it would give sanctions time to work, it has not ruled out the use of force to oust the ruling generals and return to power the democratically elected president, the Rev. Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who is living in exile in the United States.

Should the Wasp cut short its training schedule off the coast of the Carolinas, Puerto Rico and Guantanamo Naval Base in Cuba and sail directly to Haiti, it could be there in three or four days.

"The Clinton administration is signaling to Haiti's current leadersthat action will be taken if they don't depart," said Loren B. Thompson of Georgetown University's National Securities Studies Program. "That's what this is all about."

A Marine officer attached to Atlantic Command in Norfolk said: "Whatever anyone wants to read into this, it's their prerogative. It's for the generals down in Haiti to read into this anything they want, but this is something that has been planned for a long time."

The Wasp is carrying Marine Cobra helicopters armed with missiles, rockets, a cannon and machine guns; Sea Knight troop-moving and assault helicopters; and Sea Stallion transport helicopters. The Marines also have Huey command and control helicopters and light armored vehicles.

"Amphibious warships are uniquely designed to support assault from the sea against defended positions ashore," according to the Defense Department's official "Fact File." It adds: "They must be able to sail in harm's way and provide a rapid build-up of combat power ashore in the face of opposition."

Mr. Thompson of Georgetown said, "Every competent military analyst I know thinks putting troops into Haiti and removing the government would be a piece of cake."

The USS Nassau, another amphibious assault ship, was on a similar training operation at Guantanamo in October when the United Nations voted to create an international fleet to impose the Haitian embargo. The Nassau was designated as the command ship, and a commanding admiral, Marines and communications equipment had to be flown down to the ship to enable it be operate as the task force flag ship.

Already designated the command ship for the U.N. oil and arms embargo, the Wasp was sailing with an admiral and a strong compliment of Marines, helicopters and communications equipment, according to an Atlantic Command officer.

The departure of the Wasp came 24 hours after Defense Secretary William J. Perry said the administration was "starting to get some signals" from Port-au-Prince that Haiti's army commander, Lt. Gen. Raoul Cedras, "might want to step down."

Asked yesterday what those signals were, Dennis Boxx, a Pentagon spokesman, pointed to General Cedras' difficulties in forming a Cabinet and reports of friction within the Haitian military. But he noted that Mr. Perry had said it was difficult to interpret such signals.

Mr. Boxx said two Ukrainian-registered cruise ships that have been chartered by the Pentagon as possible centers for processing asylum requests from Haitians fleeing from the island would cost $34,000 and $29,000 a day.

Mr. Boxx said it was not decided if the two ships would be used as floating processing centers. No U.S. bids were received for the contract, and the Navy's Sealift Command decided that chartering the vessels was "the most logical step."

The Clinton administration has reversed its original decision that Haitian fugitives intercepted on the seas be routinely returned to Haiti. But it is insisting that their applications for permission to land in the United States be processed at sea or in third countries.

The State Department has been seeking a Caribbean or Central American country willing to provide a processing location.

Until the new refugee policy takes effect -- no start-up date was announced -- the old one was being observed. An additional 150 refugees were returned home yesterday, making 768 since last Friday.

Coast Guard figures show that 44,037 Haitians have been intercepted at sea since Father Aristide was overthrown in 1991.

Wire services contributed to this article.

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