Marines' tour of Haiti is 'timely'

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A group of 50 US Marines was due in Haiti last night after two days of violence raised fears of an all-out street war between pro-government democratic forces and the old guard of the ousted Duvalier dictatorship.

The Marines had been scheduled to arrive for a training exercise but US Defense Depart- ment officials noted that they would be prepared to protect the US embassy in the capital, Port-au-Prince, and to defend non- combat army engineers building roads.

"We certainly don't go down there in any kind of provocative way," said a Defense Department spokesman. "On the other hand, I don't think there's any reason for the Marines to be shy about the fact that they have a capability."

He was referring to the fact that crack troops of the Army's 82nd Airborne Division were in Haiti recently on a similar "training exercise" also in the wake of unrest.

Some US officials in Haiti said they feared more trouble this week if anti-government forces tried to embarrass President Bill Clinton in the run-up to next week's Democratic party convention in Chicago.

US combat forces, after intervening to restore the ousted president Jean- Bertrand Aristide in 1994, left earlier this year and have been replaced by non-American UN soldiers from Canada, Pakistan and Bangladesh. About 200 non-combat American troops stayed on to help with reconstruction and medical services.

The latest violence appears to have been sparked by the arrest of 20 former military officers on Saturday in the offices of the right-wing, pro-military, anti-government Mobilisation for National Develop- ment (MDN) party. According to police sources, they had been plotting an attack on Port-au-Prince's presidential palace, where Mr Aristide's successor, Rene Preval, lives and works.

The army, traditionally link-ed with the long Duvalier dictatorship, was disbanded by Mr Aristide last year and replaced by a new internationally train-ed police force, leaving many former officers disgruntled. Many fear the old military leadership will resurface when UN troops leave in November.

Early on Monday, apparently reacting to Saturday's arrests, two dozen men in military fatigues fired automatic weapons and grenades at the central police station where the ex-officers were being detained. A bystander was killed and two policemen were wounded before UN forces arrived in armoured cars and helicopters.

After the shooting, a warrant was issued for the arrest of the MDN leader and long-time Duvalierist Hubert de Ronceray, who disappeared while the 20 ex-officers were being arrested at his headquarters.