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5,000-Strong Multinational Force Expected

March 02, 2004|John-Thor Dahlburg and John Hendren | Times Staff Writers

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Dozens of Marines stood guard at Haiti's main airport and the National Palace on Monday, the leading edge in what U.S. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said could soon become a 5,000-member multinational force to help stabilize the country.

Between 1,500 and 2,000 Marines are eventually expected in Haiti, Rumsfeld said, although only about 200 had arrived by sunset Monday from Camp Lejeune, N.C.

"More will continue to fly in tonight and tomorrow and the days following," said Col. David Berger, the Marine commander here.

French and Canadian soldiers also were deploying to Haiti, and Chile said it would send up to 300 troops, making it the first Latin American country to join the emergency force authorized by the U.N. Security Council on Sunday after Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide fled amid an armed rebellion.

U.S. troops will take "initial leadership" of the multinational force, Rumsfeld told reporters at a Pentagon briefing.

"Obviously, we'd like to see some other country take that lead, and they will, eventually," he said. "It's a hemisphere problem. It's not just the United States' problem. We've got a lot of things we're doing. And once the situation's stabilized ... it, I think, would be appropriate to pass the lead off."

Berger, a 44-year-old Virginian, said that at the request of U.S. diplomats, he sent 35 Marines into downtown Port-au-Prince to protect the National Palace, where the government of Aristide's interim successor is based. It sits next to a vast public square where thousands of Haitians massed Monday morning to hail anti-Aristide rebels.

There were no reported clashes between the U.S. forces and Haitians. "They weren't hostile," Berger said of those gathered. Dispatching the Marines, he said, was meant to guarantee that "the crowd wouldn't become unruly."

With foreign troops still making initial assessments, the tense, rubble-strewn capital remained besieged by looters and vandals. When -- or whether -- Marines would intervene to stop such behavior or Haitian-on-Haitian violence was uncertain.

"We are not the police force," said Berger, when asked how involved Marines would be in the coming days in restoring public order. For the moment, he said, U.S. forces are operating under very strict rules of engagement that allow them to protect themselves, American citizens and third-country nationals designated for such protection.

Rumsfeld said the Americans would seek to secure buildings and establish order, but declined to say whether U.S. troops would prevent looting and violence among Haitians.

"Their mission is, contribute to a more secure and stable environment during this initial phase, in order to help support the constitutional political process, to protect U.S. citizens, to facilitate the repatriation of any Haitians interdicted at sea, to help stand up the interim force and create conditions for the arrival of a U.N. multinational force," Rumsfeld said.

Berger, who said he spent a busy day "building up U.S. forces and preparing for what we're asked to do," said the Marines' mission in Haiti was elastic, and probably would broaden.

At present, the United States, France and Canada "have as their very highest priority the protection of our own citizens," Berger said. "But I think it's going to expand beyond that so the place can get back to normal.... Whatever the government of Haiti feels is important to open back up, get started again, we can now work together to do that as much as our countries want to coordinate together."

Berger said he toured Port-au-Prince's sprawling port area Monday, but that widespread looting and vandalism in the final spasms of the Aristide government's collapse meant he and his officers had to carefully plan how best to secure it. He also said he visited the waterfront facility used by the U.S. Coast Guard to repatriate Haitians trying to flee to the U.S. by boat.

French Army Col. Daniel Leplatois said his orders were to ensure the safety of the French Embassy and of French and European nationals. Canadian forces spokesman Capt. John Price said his nation's special mission was to assist foreign nationals here seeking to leave.


Dahlburg reported from Port-au-Prince and Hendren from Arlington, Va. Staff writer Maggie Farley at the United Nations also contributed to this report.

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