Haiti's military regime splits under US pressure

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DIVISIONS are opening up within the Haitian military, as its leaders come under intensifying American pressure to give up power. The police commander, Lieutenant-Colonel Michel Francois, has indicated privately that he is prepared to see the head of the army, Lieutanant-General Raoul Cedras, step down.

At issue between the two men is the decision by General Cedras to replace President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who was overthrown by the military three years ago, with his own candidate, Emile Jonaissant. Colonel Francois apparently objects to this move, as closing the door to any compromise with Washington.

Confirming that some, at least, of Haiti's military leaders might go, the US Secretary of Defense, William Perry, said that Washington was receiving a number of signals. These were difficult to interpret, but they could mean 'that Cedras might want to step down'.

Supporters of President Aristide are worried that a cosmetic political change, like the removal of General Cedras, might be proposed by the Haitian military as a tactic to keep real political power in their hands.

Colonel Francois may calculate that through the police - and through the death squads that he is believed to control - he can keep power in Port-au-Prince, even if Fr Aristide returns.

The failure of Washington to implement its policy in Haiti is doing President Clinton some domestic political damage.

According to a Washington Post opinion poll yesterday, 50 per cent of Americans approve, and 31 per cent disapprove, of the way Mr Clinton is handling the situation in Haiti. The use of force to restore Fr Aristide to power is supported by 36 per cent, while 62 per cent say that Haitian boat people leaving the island for the US should be sent home.

To implement the new immigration policy of interviewing Haitian refugees on the high seas, the US government is chartering a 500-bed Ukrainian cruise ship at a daily cost of dollars 34,000 ( pounds 22,000). Haitians seeking political asylum will be interviewed on board, rather than being returned home without a hearing, as at present.