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Marine battle group closes in on Haiti

THE United States is sending a four-ship battle group to waters off Haiti to stiffen sanctions against the island's military rulers. Led by the helicopter assault ship Inchon, the arrival of the force will bring closer American military intervention to restore the exiled president, Jean- Bertrand Aristide.

Senior US officials say they want to see if tougher sanctions work before landing troops on the island. But President Bill Clinton may find his hand is being forced by the flood of Haitians now trying to reach Florida by boat.

'We're not announcing an invasion today,' a senior member of the administration said at the White House yesterday. A naval spokesman said the fleet would set sail today. The US is trying to find safe havens for fleeing Haitians in parts of the Caribbean other than the US.

The US Coast Guard vessels, which ring Haiti, say they picked up 3,247 Haitians in 70 boats on Monday, twice as high as on any previous day. The current surge in the numbers fleeing started on 16 June when Mr Clinton, under pressure from black leaders at home, made it easier for Haitians to obtain political asylum in the US.

The increased number of Haitians starting the 600-mile journey to Florida on board flimsy wooden boats - 10,000 have been picked up in the past 11 days - has led to some serious accidents. On Monday 150 people drowned when their boat overturned off the Haitian coast.

The US has persuaded Panama, Dominica and Antigua to open refugee camps where Haitians will be allowed to stay. The administration said yesterday that none of the refugees now setting sail - as many as 100,000 according to diplomats - will ever be allowed to enter the US. The danger for Mr Clinton is that this will be denounced as racist by black politicians, who point out that white Cubans sailing for the US are automatically given political asylum. A hunger strike in April by the black activist Randall Robinson led to Haitians being given a hearing by immigration officials.

The amphibious force led by the Inchon could form the advance guard of an invasion fleet. A Pentagon spokesman said yesterday it will 'provide the capability to evacuate American citizens and designated foreign individuals as necessary'. In addition to the 2,000 marines, the force has a tank-landing ship. Before the crisis there were some 6,000 Americans living in Haiti.

The prime aim of sending a battle group now is probably to increase the psychological pressure on Lieutenant-General Raoul Cedras, the Haitian army commander. Although he may feel compelled to order an intervention Mr Clinton would prefer to see the military leaders depart peacefully. In contrast to last year, when the Pentagon and CIA opposed military action in support of Fr Aristide, Washington is now much more united on getting rid of the Haitian junta.

MIAMI - A federal judge has awarded dollars 41m ( pounds 27m) in damages to six political activists who sued the former Haitian dictator, General Prosper Avril, for torturing them and other opponents in the late Eighties, Reuter reports.

The US District Judge, Wilkie Ferguson, issued the award in the lawsuit filed in 1991 by the mayor of Port-au- Prince, Evans Paul, and former opponents of General Avril. The general returned to Haiti from the US after losing the first phase of the lawsuit.