Clinton edges towards sending in the Marines: As tension rises over Haiti, Americans are divided about invasion, writes Rupert Cornwell in Washington

THE HAITIAN confrontation moved towards the brink yesterday as the army-controlled government in Port-au-Prince warned it would punish anyone who supported an invasion, while President Bill Clinton came closer than ever to endorsing US military intervention to restore democracy to the country.

Speaking at the end of a week-long European trip, Mr Clinton called Monday's expulsion of 89 human-rights monitors a desperate act by an illegal regime. 'We have got to bring an end to this,' he told a press conference in Berlin, insisting that the defiance of the Haiti's rulers 'validated' his decision to keep the military option open.

From UN headquarters in New York came a similar message, as at the urging of the US the Security Council issued a statement condemning Haiti's behaviour and reiterating its determination to secure a 'rapid and definitive solution' to the crisis. Earlier, Washington's UN envoy, Madeleine Albright, explained that such language referred to the need to make existing sanctions watertight. Even so, the wording fell little short of a tacit blessing for the use of force to topple General Raoul Cedras and his colleagues.

Yesterday the UN reluctantly agreed to comply with the order to remove its mission, within the next day or two. In Haiti itself, the 89 observers representing the UN and the Organisation of American States were preparing to leave, either by charter flight or on an Air France plane to Guadaloupe - one of only three remaining scheduled weekly flights to Haiti after the virtual ban on air traffic imposed from 24 June.

Before departing, the UN team was destroying documents to protect Haitian civilians who had reported human-rights violations since it began work on February 1993. Voicing widespread fears that the expulsions could hasten a fresh round of repression, William Gray, President Clinton's special adviser on Haiti, warned the authorities not to harm any of the UN observers. Such behaviour, he said, would be a 'miscalculation and a tragic mistake'.

But Port-au-Prince seems deterred neither by the international condemnation being heaped upon it, nor the 14 US warships now stationed around Haiti, carrying 2,000 Marines ready to intervene should Pentagon plans for an invasion be given the go-ahead. Almost daring the administration to act, Haitian radio read out a government message yesterday declaring that 'all who call for invasion' would be liable for punishment under the law.

Despite the rising tension, US officials continue to claim that a military intervention is not imminent. One problem is the misgivings of some Caribbean and Latin American countries, and Washington's desire to present any such move as an international, UN-authorised response. Another difficulty, no less tricky for the White House, is strong congressional opposition to any US entanglement.

The spectre is a repeat of Somalia, where after initial success the US-led multinational force was trapped in factional warfare. Indiana Republican Richard Lugar, a widely respected member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said the expulsions were 'outrageous', but that an invasion would be a serious error.

'We've got to get over the idea that invading Haiti is going to make democracy easier or life for the people easier,' said Mr Lugar, expressing sentiments stretching well beyond his own party. 'It certainly will make it more difficult for the United States because we will be the government and we will then be the oppressors.'

Public opinion, too, is broadly opposed to invasion. But the President faces scarcely less powerful pressures to act. The overwhelmingly Democratic black caucus in Congress accuses him of racial discrimination in refusing to take in Haitians fleeing their country. The flood of boat people, though abating somewhat in the last 48 hours, threatens none the less swiftly to overwhelm ad hoc plans - embarrassingly rejected by Panama - for other countries to accept the refugees temporarily.

Various pretexts for a US landing exist, from the risk of further human-rights abuses by the Haitian military and police, to the need to protect Americans living in Haiti, the ostensible justification for this month's dispatch of the Marines.

Washington's ever-shifting responses to the crisis have only reinforced Mr Clinton's reputation for foreign policy inconstancy.

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