Haiti's police chief bans possession of personal weapons

Official asks U.S. forces to aid in security during rival marches today

March 07, 2004|By Carol J. Williams | Carol J. Williams,LOS ANGELES TIMES

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti - National Police Chief Leon Charles banned the possession of personal weapons yesterday and appealed to the U.S.-led multinational forces here to help provide security during competing marches today to mark the departure of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide a week ago.

The show of unity called by the Democratic Platform, an alliance of political and social groups that fought for years to remove Aristide, has provoked the former president's supporters to announce a countermarch.

That has stirred fears of a repeat of the bloody confrontations that marked demonstrations when Aristide was in power.

"No one except police officers are allowed to have weapons from now on," Charles, who was appointed Thursday to resurrect the demoralized law enforcement body, told Radio Kiskeya. "We need to recover the confidence of the people so that we can protect them."

Though rebel leader Guy Philippe has pledged his fighters will disarm, many insist they will not give up their weapons until militant supporters of Aristide do the same.

Rebels who choose not to show their weapons in public openly admit that they have stashed them for later use. And a ceremony in Gonaives for Ogun Feray, the war god, indicates that Haiti's bloody uprising might not be over.

"In terms of where the guns are and who we will surrender them to, that's a secret," said local rebel commander Winter Etienne, 40. "When you lay down your arms, you always want to have them someplace where you can pick them up again if you need them."

Charles went to the U.S. Marines' airport headquarters yesterday to ask for a strong presence of the multinational force.

"We're here to support the Haitian National Police. If they want us to provide security and stability, we're here to do that," said Maj. Richard Crusan, a spokesman for the U.S. contingent of the 2,000-strong force that also includes French, Canadians and Chileans.

Marines patrolling the capital withdrew some of their guards from around the presidential National Palace and the prime minister's office yesterday after it became clear that the overwhelming show of force had become a sore point with Haitians.

"We've just basically pulled them back, trying to provide less of a military presence in the areas and allow people to get back to their daily lives without us hanging over them," said Staff Sgt. Timothy Edwards. "We don't want to appear like an occupation force."

Crusan said he was "very concerned for the safety and well-being" of Haitians taking to the streets in political demonstrations and encouraged the groups to register their plans with the police so appropriate security can be provided.

In a phone interview, Charles said the Democratic Platform had informed authorities of its planned five-mile procession from Place St. Pierre in Petionville to the National Palace. But the new police chief, a former Coast Guard official, said he had no such notification from any of the pro-Aristide organizations that told journalists they would demonstrate to vent their anger over his departure.

The groups, composed mainly of jobless street toughs, were created and armed by Aristide's Lavalas Party over the past four years to menace opposition political events. Called chimeres, which is Creole for mythical monsters, they swarmed into action more than a week ago, ransacking and burning homes and businesses of Aristide's opponents as rebel forces approached the capital city.

One chimere, calling himself Nazi Dreads, of the pro-Aristide King Rasta Operation for Peace, said his gang would converge with others from the downtown slums to prevent the Democratic Platform marchers from reaching the palace.

"Lavalas is still in power, and we can do what we want," he said.

Technically, Aristide's party remains in power despite his departure Feb. 29 to the Central African Republic. But interim President Boniface Alexander and a seven-member Council of Sages named Friday plan to name a new prime minister Tuesday and a new Cabinet by Saturday. They will run the country until presidential and parliamentary elections can be held, which might take as long as two years.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper. The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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