US 'dress rehearsal' for Haiti invasion: Pentagon denies huge exercise is prelude to attack

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The Independent Online
SPECULATION THAT President Clinton may be moving rapidly towards ordering a full-scale invasion of Haiti to reinstate ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide intensified yesterday after revelations of a massive military exercise in the Caribbean last week by US Marines and Special Forces, writes David Usborne in Washington.

After initially denying reports of the manoeuvres, the Pentagon later admitted that as many as 44,000 troops had been involved in exercises in Puerto Rico, the Bahamas and North Carolina. A mock invasion was staged of a fictitious state taken over in a coup by an 'unfriendly leader'. Officials denied that it had been launched with any actual country in mind.

The Haitian military leader, Lieutenant-General Raoul Cedras, predicted wide resistance from the Haitian people if US forces intervened in the country. In an interview on CNN, he said: 'The defence of the country does not only come from the armed forces. The American troops would have in front of them a people.'

Code-named 'Operation Agile Provider', the exercise involved amphibious vessels, warplanes and a submarine. In the course of the simulated invasions, Army Rangers penetrated 10 miles inland, took control of 'communications centres' and seized imaginary installations.

Similar exercises were held by the US in the same region shortly before President Reagan's invasion of Grenada in 1983 and before the 1989 assault against President Noriega in Panama. A military source told the Boston Globe that Agile Provider was pursued 'with Haiti in mind'.

Last week Mr Clinton confirmed that military intervention in Haiti to force out its military leaders remained 'an option'. The regime appeared almost to be baiting Washington by installing a new President, 81-year-old Emile Jonassaint, last week.

Although some Democratic Congressmen have urged Mr Clinton to intervene militarily in Haiti, there is strong opposition to such a move in both parties. Senator Bob Dole, the Republican leader, called for the creation of a bipartisan panel to study alternative options. 'The administration appears to be lurching toward the use of military force in Haiti without considering the consequences,' he said on Friday.

Most observers consider it unlikely that the President would order any military action until after the introduction of new and much tougher United Nations sanctions against Haiti on 21 May. The White House has indicated that it would prefer that any invasion be a multi-national affair, with participation from US allies. Last week the French Foreign Minister, Alain Juppe, on a visit to Washington, spelt out his own government's strong opposition to any invasion of Haiti.

'France is not prepared to play at being conquerors around the world,' he said. Several Latin American states have warned Washington that they would not support military intervention. Denying that Agile Provider was directed towards Haiti, military officials said it had been in planning for more than a year and was no different from past such exercises.

'Anything that happens in this hemisphere, whether it be a troop movement or an exercise, people are trying to tie to reports of a Haiti invasion. It's just not valid,' said an Air Force spokeswoman.

The newly installed President Jonassaint, meanwhile, has spoken out in defence of the 1991 coup that ousted Mr Aristide. As to the threat of a US invasion, he commented last week: 'We are weak. They will do what they wish with us. We don't have the atom bomb. Suffering is ncessary so that man can uplift himself.'

It was the second time that the Pentagon has been forced to deny reports of imminent US action. Earlier last week, it rejected as nonsense a report by the Los Angeles Times from Port au Prince that the Pentagon was in the final stages of planning military intervention.

If an invasion were to be ordered, it is likely that the US would seek to use the territory of neighbouring islands to launch the attack, including the British Turks and Caicos Islands directly to the north.

Last weekend Mr Clinton moved to stave off criticism of his policy towards Haitian refugees by ordering the reintroduction of the screening of asylum-seekers on the high seas. In a policy condemned by human rights groups, the US has been automatically turning back all 'boat people' intercepted at sea since 1992.