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U.S. Forces Liberate Haitian Town Held Hostage by Fear : Caribbean: Presence transforms Fort Liberte. 'It is as if God had descended from the heavens,' resident says.

October 06, 1994|TRACY WILKINSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

FORT LIBERTE, Haiti — U.S. Special Forces swept into this grim town before dawn Wednesday, seizing weapons from the Haitian military and quickly arresting key local leaders of Haiti's repression. Immediately, Fort Liberte, until now a town ruled by fear, was transformed.

Residents who scarcely two days earlier had spoken in whispers now filled the dirt streets outside the yellow army garrison where the American GIs set up base, waving creased pictures of exiled President Jean-Bertrand Aristide and chanting welcomes.

"It is as if God had descended from the heavens," shouted Dimas Deauville, a fisherman who has not worked since his union was broken up by the military leaders who ousted Aristide in 1991.

The crowd began gathering in small numbers at sunup, stunned that the Americans had really arrived. Within minutes, their number grew to more than 1,000. They played musical instruments removed from the local school and dared the hated attaches , or paramilitary agents, to beat them.

U.S. troops descended on the homes of reputed attaches and other supporters of the dictatorship, arresting nine, including a man identified as a former ambassador.

In the hours that followed, roving bands of Haitians took justice into their own hands, seizing people, binding them with rope and then parading them to the army headquarters to be turned over to the Americans.

Just two days earlier, the scene in Fort Liberte had been radically different.

Fort Liberte was a forbidding town, where suspicious Haitians stared nervously from their tiny homes built on the ruins of once-grand plantation estates.

Young men who most likely belonged to attache ranks congregated in scattered, vigilant groups. Bitter Haitian army officers sat on the cracked concrete front porch of the garrison, playing dominoes and cursing.

The contrast between Fort Liberte before and after its occupation shows the dramatic influence the U.S. military is having in parts of rural northern Haiti, where authority based on intimidation and cronyism is shattering.

The phenomenon has been repeated as U.S. forces spread their control over town after town in this miserable, long-exploited region, where few communities boast even electricity or running water.

With a new sense of relief, towns such as Ouanaminthe, Limbe and even Cap Haitien are now the daily scenes of the kind of pro-Aristide demonstrations that would have landed participants in prison, or worse, just a few weeks ago.

Fort Liberte, population 6,000, is particularly significant because it has long been a bastion of support for the Duvalier dictatorships, their dreaded henchmen--the Tontons Macoutes--and their successors, the equally dreaded attaches .

In Wednesday's operation, among the first arrested was Pascal Blaise, identified by U.S. forces as a prominent leader of FRAPH, a French acronym that stands for the paramilitary political party formed to back Haiti's dictatorship.

Guns drawn, the U.S. soldiers marched into Blaise's home as several young men tried to escape out the back. The troops ordered Blaise, a former mayor and head of the high school, and the other men to the ground, handcuffing them and carting them off to the army prison. Arrests followed at several other sites.

In an interview on Monday, Blaise said he was sure that Aristide supporters were scheming to destroy the homes and businesses of their enemies.

"The (Aristide supporters) are numerous," he said. "Our people are numerous as well. If they come to attack us, we are ready."

Wednesday's pre-dawn occupation started with the disarming of the Haitian military. Some of their guns were later returned to encourage them to begin patrols of the town under new rules. But most of the Haitians were afraid to leave the barracks, fearing attack from the crowds.

Percy Golmain, a tall, slender 25-year-old Haitian lieutenant from Port-au-Prince who is working with the Americans, implored people to respect the men on patrol.

"You know the Americans have come to work with everybody, not just one side, so let us do our job," he said.

"Only with two hands!" the crowd shouted in unison--a demand that Haitian officers not be allowed to carry arms.

The Special Forces ordered the Haitians not to use batons.

"For the people of Haiti, the baton is a symbol of brutality," Master Sgt. Stan Goeff told two dozen Haitian officers who lined up outside the garrison when the GIs arrived. "You will no longer carry them."

A crowd gathered outside the home of Nyll Calixte, director of the university law school here and by most accounts one of the most affluent men in town, threatening to lynch him. After concluding Calixte was a senior FRAPH leader, the military handcuffed him to his French-born wife and loaded them into the back of their Humvee. The crowd cheered.

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