U.S. Marines rush into Haiti's capital

Tuesday, February 24, 2004

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti -- Fifty U.S. Marines streamed into the capital Monday to protect the U.S. Embassy and its staff, while government loyalists set flaming barricades to block the road from rebels threatening to move on Port-au-Prince.

The United States made last-ditch efforts at finding a political solution. As an opposition coalition was on the brink of rejecting a U.S.-backed peace plan on the grounds that it did not call for President Jean-Bertrand Aristide to step down, Secretary of State Colin Powell phoned opposition politicians and asked them to delay responding formally to the plan for 24 hours.

Evans Paul, a leading opponent who once was allied with Aristide, said the coalition agreed the extra time "will perhaps give Mr. Powell a little more time to consider his position ... and give us the assurances we need" on Aristide's departure.

With rebels hoping to seize the capital by Sunday, Cabinet ministers were asking friends for places to hide, senior government sources said. The rebels seized Haiti's second-largest city, Cap-Haitien, with little resistance Sunday and attacked two police stations outside Port-au-Prince.

More than half of Haiti is now beyond the control of the central government. In Cap-Haitien on Monday, rebels hunted down militants loyal to Aristide, accusing them of terrorizing the population in the days before the fall of the northern port city of 500,000.

With violence rising both from Aristide supporters and the insurgents, France urged its citizens Monday to leave its former colony. The United States and Mexico told their citizens to get out last week. There are about 30,000 foreigners in Haiti, including about 20,000 Americans, 2,000 French and 1,000 Canadians.

Their rifles at the ready, about 24 Marines in combat gear and helmets rushed off the U.S. Air Force transport plane at Toussaint Louverture International Airport on Monday and ran to make a secure perimeter around the aircraft before another 30 Marines got off a second plane.

The Marines then drove to the U.S. Embassy in Port-au-Prince in a convoy of trucks and cars. Western diplomats and a Defense Department official said their mission was to protect the U.S. Embassy and its staff.

In Port-au-Prince, hundreds of armed Aristide supporters set up more than a dozen barricades on the road leading north, near the international airport. Their tension was evident as they banged on a car with rifle butts and waved shotguns and pistols at vehicles to force them to stop.

"We are ready to resist, with anything we have -- rocks, machetes," said a teacher guarding one roadblock, who gave his name only as Rincher.

Cap-Haitien is just 90 miles north of the capital, but is a grueling seven-hour drive over potholed roads sometimes reduced to bedrock.

The takeover of Cap-Haitien by only some 200 fighters was the most significant victory since the uprising began on Feb. 5. At least 17 were killed in Sunday's fighting, raising the toll to about 70 dead and dozens wounded in the revolt.

Aristide was wildly popular when he became Haiti's first freely elected leader in 1990 but he has lost support since flawed legislative elections in 2000 led international donors to freeze millions of dollars in aid.

Opponents accuse the former priest of failing to help those in need in the Western Hemisphere's poorest country, allowing corruption and masterminding attacks on opponents by armed gangs. Aristide denies the charges.

Philippe was an officer in the army when it ousted Aristide in 1991 and instigated a reign of terror that ended in 1994 when the United States sent 20,000 troops to end the military dictatorship.

Associated Press reporters Paisley Dodds contributed to this report from Cap-Haitien and Mark Stevenson contributed from Port-au-Prince.

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