Uncle Sam bombs Haiti with a thousand radios: Troops suspect American 'gifts' are booby-trapped while civilians fear being labelled as US spies if they are caught with them

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IT LOOKED at first like a swiftly moving cloud against the black night sky. Then it drifted closer, over the St Gerard church a little more than 100 yards away, and it became clear it was a parachute. We heard the growl of a low-flying transport aircraft and we thought the invasion had begun.

As it turned out, there was no one on the end of the 'chute, just a box a little larger than a wine case, containing a few dozen well-padded miniature AM/FM radios, courtesy of Uncle Sam. If the radios were aimed at allowing Haitians to tune in to Bill Clinton's key Haiti speech, they arrived 30 minutes too late, around 10pm local time on Thursday.

Fortunately for Mr Clinton, whose predecessor inadvertently killed several Kurdish peasants with parachuted food parcels in 1991, none of the boxes was reported to have hit anyone. Several parachutes were sighted, carrying a total of perhaps 1,000 radios, but no one was in a hurry to pick them up. Haitian police and troops suspected they were booby-trapped. Ordinary citizens were afraid that anyone caught with one would be accused of being a US spy. Earlier, US-printed leaflets began circulating - although these were apparently aimed at American troops - listing the phonetically-written Creole phrases for 'Stop, Do Not Move, Drop Your Weapons and Hands Up'.

The roar of the aircraft, the parachutes, the warships and helicopters offshore and Mr Clinton's speech left little doubt among Haitians that an invasion was nigh. The wealthy, and probably Lieutenant-General Raoul Cedras himself, watched Mr Clinton live on CNN. The masses heard the news on Radio Diol (Creole for 'mouth'), the local bush telegraph, but showed little interest.

But for the small minority of wealthy mulattos (mixed race) in luxury villas above Port-au-Prince, few Haitians can have any conception of the 'right to life, liberty and happiness' cited by Mr Clinton. Nor would they have been moved by his graphic references to 'executed orphans' or 'body parts left as warnings'. Such things are commonplace here. And they were at least as commonplace during the two Duvalier regimes - of Francois 'Papa Doc' and his son Jean-Claude 'Baby Doc' - long supported by successive US administrations.

There was no sense of tension on the streets of Port-au-Prince yesterday. Expectancy and curiosity, yes. Residents asked reporters when the US Marines might come ashore, but most showed more concern over how they were going to get their next meal. The vast majority, for whom nothing could be worse than their present fear and hunger, appeared to welcome an invasion. Threats by Lt-Gen Cedras and his Canadian PR team that Haitians would fight a 'civil war' against US troops appeared to be no more than rhetoric.

Our trip across Haiti from the Dominican Republic on Thursday did not suggest the Haitians were planning to fight. A single soldier carrying a US-made M-16 rifle sat on an office chair at the lakeside Mal Passe border post and joked with us as rowing boats came and went from the Dominican side and unloaded cans of petrol and cases of whisky 50 yards away. He and an attache, a blue-shirted paramilitary gunman armed with a Second World War rifle, appeared to be their nation's only defence within 30 miles of the border.

Only at Croix des Bouquets, a half hour's drive from the capital, did we encounter more troops, equally laid-back and lazing inside their garrison.

In the capital, the US embassy spokesman Stanley Schrager said the 3,500 American citizens in Haiti had been advised to stay home between 7pm and 6am until further notice. The Haitian military has imposed a seven-to-seven curfew on the country's roads. It does not affect the capital, but few people ventured on to the streets on Thursday night, emerging only after dawn yesterday to turn the city back into its usual bustling self. Packed, gaily painted tap- taps, carrying such slogans as 'Glory to Jesus' and 'Prince of Peace', jammed the downtown streets.

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