First U.S. fatality in Haiti is an apparent suicide

September 28, 1994|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,Sun Staff Correspondent

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti -- The first American fatality in Haiti came yesterday when a soldier apparently committed suicide while guarding the villa that will house legislators returning from exile for today's emergency meeting of Parliament.

A senior military officer said that the soldier had personal problems. No one saw him walk away from his unit. Alone and out of sight, he reportedly shot himself. His gun and a shell casing were found beside him.

The identity of the soldier, from the 10th Mountain Division, was not immediately available.

Col. Barry Willey, the spokesman for the U.S.-led intervention, said that the death was "self-inflicted" and was not the result of a sniper attack or an accidental discharge of a weapon.

But when news broke of the soldier's death, U.S. officials initially feared that the incident might have been an assassination by a supporter of Haiti's military rulers. For several reasons, the first news flash sent a shudder through the U.S. military and diplomatic hierarchy:

* The timing: The soldier died just 24 hours before 10 parliamentary deputies and two senators were to return from exile in the United States to vote on a new amnesty law for the military dictatorship, a major step toward their departure from power.

* The place: The soldier died at the Villa D'Accueil (House of Welcome), Haiti's formal state guest house. It will be used by the parliamentarians while they are here.

* The location: The villa sits amid some of the capital's smartest homes, which house members of the right-wing elite, most of whom oppose the return of exiled President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. The villa also borders the residence of U.S. Ambassador William L. Swing and the Port-au-Prince country club.

* The circumstances: The reassembly of Parliament is an important step toward the eventual return to normality, and is feared likely to provoke hostile reaction from supporters of the Haitian military, which must cede power by Oct. 15.

"Had it been a sniper attack, it would have been very serious," said a U.S. diplomat. "It would certainly have fulfilled our worst fears."

Those fears center on terrorist attacks against U.S. soldiers to cause chaos and derail the return of the populist priest.

Early reports of a sniper attack were fueled by Haitians at the scene, who spoke of hearing one or two shots from outside the villa grounds and of seeing U.S. troops rush to defensive positions.

"There was panic. They were frightened," said Marie Rose Herard, a maid at the home of Raoul Reyme, Haitian ambassador to Zaire during the Duvalier dictatorship. She said that she heard one shot and that there was no return fire from U.S. troops in the villa.

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