Rebel moves to assert power in Haiti

Philippe declares himself military chief

U.S. rejects insurgents' bid for control

March 03, 2004|By Carol J. Williams | Carol J. Williams,LOS ANGELES TIMES

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti - Vowing to bring order to this lawless capital, a leader of the rebels who forced former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide to flee declared himself the nation's new military chief yesterday.

Flanked by other rebel leaders and senior officers of Haiti's police force, Guy Philippe proclaimed at a news conference that he was in charge of the military, which had been disbanded by Aristide several years ago.

"I am the chief," said Philippe, who then clarified that he meant "the military chief." He added: "I am not interested in politics. The president is the legal president so we follow his orders."

Philippe later told the Associated Press that he will arrest Prime Minister Yvon Neptune on corruption charges.

Meanwhile, the Bush administration rejected the rebels' bid for control and said the transfer of power to interim President Boniface Alexandre was taking place in an orderly and constitutional manner.

"The rebels do not have a role in the political process," State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said in Washington. He added that they should "disband and go back to their homes."

The rebels arrived in the capital Monday in a convoy of battered pickup trucks and took a noisy victory lap around police stations and the presidential palace.

"Guy Philippe is here!" jubilant youths chanted as thousands danced and celebrated in the park in front of the National Palace, paying tribute to the insurgent leader and his band of a few dozen camouflage-clad gunmen. It was the first time in years that many of those who opposed Aristide had dared to approach the seat of power, a colonial mansion now patrolled by a handful of U.S. Marines.

A former police chief in Cap-Haitien and a suspect in previous coup plots, Philippe and his self-styled liberation front spent the day taking their bows among grateful Aristide opponents. Over the weekend, armed and angry street youth had thronged the government quarter, saying they would defend Aristide.

On his rounds of the main police stations and at a meeting with opposition leaders at a posh hillside hotel, Philippe sought to persuade businessmen and activists from mainstream political parties to support his plans to restore order. With no army or reliable police force, some rebels said they had begun shooting looters.

About 300 U.S. Marines have arrived here as well as French and Canadian contingents, the vanguard of a multinational force whose mission is to restore the rule of law while diplomats broker a plan for a transitional government.

U.S. Ambassador James Foley and Caribbean Community diplomats met with government and opposition politicians to discuss future steps. No progress was reported.

"It's a power vacuum. There's no one to call the shots, and there's an absolute breakdown of law and order," said Colin Granderson, one of the Caribbean Community negotiators.

"All of that could have been avoided," he said Sunday. "If the opposition had agreed, if the international community had acted immediately, if Aristide could have arranged his departure to coincide with a stabilization force, we could have avoided this anarchy."

Alexandre, who was Haiti's chief justice before becoming interim president, has made little in the way of public appearances since being sworn in after Aristide fled into exile Sunday.

The rubble-strewn capital remained tense yesterday, besieged by looters and vandals. Some were former supporters of Aristide angered over his ouster; others were simply desperate to get their hands on any booty.

"Aristide is gone, but his repressive machine is still here. His corrupted police are here. His prime minister is here," said one of Philippe's fighters, a cocky, U.S.-educated gunman in a Ferrari baseball cap and designer sunglasses whose nom de guerre is Faustin. "Aristide left a lot of weapons with the chimeres [pro-Aristide gangs], and I think he left an agenda with them to burn, loot and kill people."

Faustin said he had spent the previous night shooting at looters and chimeres with his M-4 assault rifle.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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