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Haitian Rebel Leader Claims the Mantle of Military Chief

Philippe orders the arrest of the prime minister, who may have fled, and his forces take over army offices. U.S. scoffs at his plans.

March 03, 2004|Carol J. Williams | Times Staff Writer

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Rebel leader Guy Philippe proclaimed himself Haiti's military chief Tuesday, resurrecting the army disbanded by former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide and assigning to it the "moral obligation" to fill the security vacuum in this capital plagued by looting, vandalism and bloody reprisals.

While insisting that he had no political leadership ambitions, Philippe immediately ordered the arrest of Prime Minister Yvon Neptune on corruption charges. An Aristide ally, Neptune stayed behind when the president left the country Sunday, but there were rumors Tuesday that he may have fled. Rebels drove to his office but did not enter it.

Philippe's forces took over Haiti's former military headquarters across from the National Palace. The building, which recently had been used as an exhibition hall, is symbolic as the seat of power for the junta that ruled after Aristide was first ousted in a 1991 coup.

As hundreds of supporters cheered outside, the rebels began throwing items out the windows, including a baby's coffin, said to symbolize voodoo influence on past dictators. U.S. Marines and other members of the multinational force being assembled to provide security made no effort to deter the rebels.

But in Washington, officials warned that the rebels, who have the support of Haiti's elite, should have no place in the nation's future.

"The rebels have to lay down their arms and go home," State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said.

Roger Noriega, assistant secretary of State for Western Hemisphere affairs, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that Philippe was "not in control of anything but a ragtag band of people."

However, the rebels and other armed bands appeared to have almost free rein in Port-au-Prince, the capital. U.S. Marine Col. David Berger reiterated Tuesday that neither the Marines nor other troops deploying in Haiti have a mandate to police the capital or disarm the rebels or gangs who were given weapons by Aristide.

"Militarily, as long as they don't present a hostile opposition, interference to what we're doing, then how heavily armed or unarmed they are is probably suited for the Haitian government to decide," Berger said. Philippe has said he welcomes the foreign forces but doesn't regard them as sufficient protection for the people of Haiti.

At a morning news conference at the once-elegant Ibo Lele resort, a 1950s playground of the rich and famous overlooking the Caribbean, Philippe answered questions in English, French and Creole. As he waited for the session to start, he pored over a Dominican Republic newspaper.

Asked about demands by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International that several of his fighters be arrested for taking part in political killings under previous regimes, Philippe said matters of justice would be the province of a new government, not his armed forces. Attempting to assure Haitians that his men would be defenders of the public, not political enforcers, Philippe insisted: "We are not here to break the law."

Two rebel fighters known to have participated in repression during past dictatorships, Louis-Jodel Chamblain and Jean-Pierre Baptiste, were conspicuously absent from the rebels' public appearances Tuesday.

Philippe said he would take orders from interim President Boniface Alexandre, who was sworn in by Neptune three hours after Aristide departed. But the former Supreme Court chief justice has made no public appearance or pronouncement since early Sunday.

"For now, the people will tell us what to do," Philippe said, announcing that he would go to the Champ de Mars square in front of the National Palace to hear what the people wanted.

Fewer than 1,000 gathered at the head of the square where the military headquarters stands, but their chants of "Arrest Neptune!" prompted the rebels to set out in search of the prime minister. A tense crowd of rebel supporters and armed youths who appeared to be remnants of pro-Aristide gangs converged on Neptune's office, dispersing only when rumors spread that he had left the country.

Berger, the Marines' ground commander, confirmed that a plane had taken off from the national airport after a long wait on the tarmac. He said he wasn't sure who owned the plane or who was aboard.

Meanwhile, in Jamaica, leaders of the Caribbean Community regional organization were meeting to discuss a role in the development of a new political structure in Haiti. In Port-au-Prince, political organizations were negotiating the next steps toward an interim government.

Aristide, in exile in the Central African Republic, continued to claim Tuesday that the U.S. had forced him out of office. White House and State Department officials have rejected those charges as absurd, and Aristide's hosts urged him to tone down his rhetoric.

Another deposed Haitian leader also weighed in Tuesday. Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier, the dictatorial "president for life" who fled to France in 1986, told a Miami television station that he wanted to return home.

"This is my country. I'm ready to put myself at the disposal of the Haitian people," Duvalier, 50, told WFOR from Paris.

He said he had no interest in running for the presidency but was in "constant contact" with supporters.

Times staff writers John-Thor Dahlburg in Port-au-Prince and Jon Marino and Paul Richter Washington contributed to this report.

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