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U.S. Expands Mission in Haiti to Allow More Use of Force

Marines 'will intervene to protect life,' says their commander. Nation's interim prime minister returns to assume office.

March 11, 2004|John-Thor Dahlburg and Esther Schrader | Times Staff Writers

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — A day after U.S. Marines again used their weapons, firing back at gunmen on the capital's rooftops, the Pentagon announced that it was expanding the mission to allow U.S. troops to forcefully stop violence among Haitians.

Gen. James Hill, commander of the U.S. Southern Command, told reporters in Washington that the tougher rules were a natural evolution of the U.S. peacekeeping mission in Haiti, where troops from four countries are working to restore order after a rebellion forced former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide into exile Feb. 29.

Marines "will intervene to protect life," Hill said.

The announcement of the expanded role came as Gerard Latortue, a 69-year-old economist and diplomat, returned from Florida to become the interim prime minister. He said he would work to restore security and organize new elections in the violence-racked country. More than 300 Haitians have been killed in recent weeks, and looting has been widespread.

"We are all Haitians. We must walk hand in hand," said Latortue, a former foreign minister and U.N. official who fled Haiti after a 1988 military coup.

Expanding the mission required a clarification of the rules governing when U.S. and allied troops could use force, said Hill, whose Miami-based command oversees the Haiti operation.

"When multinational armed forces personnel encounter any acts of violence, they will intervene to protect life," Hill said at his news conference. "We will simply not tolerate acts of violence against our multinational forces or innocent Haitians."

Pentagon spokesman Lawrence Di Rita said U.S. troops still wouldn't intervene to stop property crimes.

U.S. Marines have fired upon and killed four Haitians because they felt threatened, military officials said.

The first incident was Sunday, when gunmen opened fire on a demonstration by anti-Aristide protesters. Marines fired at the gunmen, and killed one who they said was firing at them. Hill said that incident was an example of why the rules of engagement had to be clarified.

"No one from the multinational force was going to stand there and watch one Haitian kill another Haitian without trying to intervene," Hill said.

The international force includes 510 French, 320 Chilean and 50 Canadian soldiers. About 400 Canadian troops are expected to arrive soon, Hill said.

Marine Col. Mark Gurganus, in command of the 1,600 U.S. troops in this Caribbean nation, said a Marine foot patrol returned fire early Tuesday evening when it went to investigate a report of illegal weapons in a capital neighborhood. Earlier that day, U.S. forces announced that they would begin disarming Haitian militants in a bid to end the violence and insecurity.

As the Marines entered the residential district near the prime minister's offices, "they were taken under by fire by gunmen from two separate rooftops -- more or less ambushed," Gurganus said.

The troops responded with fire from M-16s and shotguns and believed they killed two riflemen on one roof, the colonel said. As the Marines changed position, a gunman atop another building shot at them. The Marines fired at him, but he fled across the rooftops.

When the Marines, accompanied by Haitian police officers, returned to the area, they found bloodstains and shell casings on the roof of the first house, but no bodies. En route to its base, the patrol was fired on a third time. The gunfire stopped after the patrol leader fired six rounds from his handgun, the colonel said.

Also Tuesday, a speeding car stopped outside the port and gunmen sprayed bullets at guards at the main gate. The Marines fired at the three men, who fled into a nearby slum, Gurganus said.

A fourth man was killed by Marines when he ran a roadblock Monday.

The Marine colonel said it was too early to tell whether his forces were being targeted by die-hard Aristide loyalists, rebels who marched against the ex-president or someone else.

"At this point in time, I don't necessarily see a pattern," Gurganus said. "Are they targeting our forces? I don't think so yet."

Aristide has been in the Central African Republic since March 1. He met with South African officials Wednesday to discuss asylum in that country.

After the talks, the South African deputy foreign affairs minister, Aziz Pahad, said the question of Aristide's future should be determined by the African Union. He praised the Central African Republic for accepting Aristide.

Gurganus said the task of disarming Haiti's political factions would have to be carried out with great care. "Any time you take weapons away from people, you are starting to talk about a dangerous thing," he said. "I think policemen will tell you that."

As of midafternoon Wednesday, Gurganus said, the Marines hadn't collected a single gun despite Tuesday's announcement, and had conducted no sweeps in search of illicit weapons.

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