Haiti Showdown: Carter talks of peace as war drums roll

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NO ONE on the outside could be sure whether the drums of war were getting closer or fading. But a mixture of voodoo drums, Christian hymns, religious symbols and anti-Clinton obscenities formed a surreal backdrop to last- ditch efforts by President Bill Clinton's envoys yesterday to avoid an invasion of Haiti.

Jimmy Carter, the former United States president, General Colin Powell, the former chief of staff, and Senator Sam Nunn were aware of the bizarre crowd scenes outside the ramshackle Grand Military Headquarters at a converted hospital in the capital.

Inside, the three US envoys completed more than 24 hours of almost non-stop negotiations with Generals Raoul Cedras and Phillipe Biamby and the rest of Haiti's military command. US officials insisted there were no negotiations, but three trips to the military garrison by the three Americans suggested otherwise.

The envoys, US diplomats, Haitian officers, politicians and businessmen remained tight-lipped. Not so the demonstrators, who gathered outside the white presidential palace, bused in on lorries, and who chased a CNN cameraman while he filmed them, singing in French-Creole: 'Don't try to screw us, or we'll screw you.' The mob followed the three envoys to the military headquarters. They were joined by a few hundred wealthy Haitians, mostly women, from the luxury villas of Petionville above the capital. They sang the national anthem and then 'Dieu Tout Puissant', a French version of the hymn 'How Great Thou Art.'

In a town that still expects to be invaded, the scene at the military headquarters was hard to believe. As a third round of talks dragged on yesterday, grinning Haitian soldiers in ill-fitting combat helmets lazed over the balconies and smoked cigarettes. US secret servicemen, disguised as photographers, cradled what appeared to be automatic rifles or shotguns under blue cloth covers.

Apparently opting to play the religious card for CNN and the American public, General Cedras' brother, Alix, a civilian, appeared on the central balcony and hung a portrait of the Madonna and child. Haitians said they interpreted it as a symbol that 'only the virgin can protect us now'. But none of them believed that this necessarily suggested a Haitian surrender.

While civilian gunmen toted pistols under their white 'No to Intervention' T-shirts on the streets below, the secret servicemen looked bemused.

Earlier, nervous embassy guards brought what appeared to be communications equipment through the headquarters' back door. It appeared that Messrs Carter, Powell and Nunn had decided to update Mr Clinton on their comings and goings, which began on Saturday.

The situation turned ugly when two US embassy guards emerged from the military headquarters to find a dozen Haitians standing on the roof of their vehicle. 'Get off my car,' growled an embassy guard. The Haitians quickly did so, but others, some armed, then surrounded the vehicle, shouting obscenities in English and yelling 'this is still our country, motherf . . .'

A Haitian businessman smoothed over the incident. One demonstrator wore a baseball cap from the aircraft carrier, USS John F Kennedy. Another wore a T-shirt in the design of a dollar bill, with 'United States of America' across his chest. A plump lady wore one saying 'Anbago Men Paw', a Creole slogan roughly translatable as 'Embargo - Up Yours'.

There were perhaps 1,000 demonstrators shouting on behalf of the military leaders. As for the majority of Haitians, including the supporters of the exiled President, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, thousands had fled to the countryside, expecting an American invasion and violence among Haitians.

To add to the surreal atmosphere, the man known as 'The Shadow', a Canadian former fighter pilot-turned-art dealer, who is General Cedras' public relations advisor, arrived.

'The Americans are bigger than us. They can squish us like insects,' Mr Garrison said. 'But that does not mean we should capitulate. This is a proud and nationalistic country. I think some of General Cedras' remarks have been misinterpreted. I don't think he means he is going to fight them on the beaches. But he doesn't have to leave. This is his country and he was named armed forces chief of staff by Aristide.'

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