US troops stand by as crowds riot: HAITI: US forces tighten their grip while police clash with Aristide supporters - Exiled president keeps his distance

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The Independent Online
THE SOLDIERS of the First Brigade of the 10th Mountain Division, the first into Haiti, are already comparing it with their last delicate assignment. They were last deployed in Somalia.

Violent incidents in the streets of the Haitian capital yesterday, in which police battered supporters of the exiled President, Jean- Bertrand Aristide, for no other reason than to prevent them from expressing their views, showed that the shadow of Somalia is a real one for the US intervention force here.

The soldiers from the 10th Mountain Division may already be feeling as out of place as the heavy winter combat uniforms they are wearing in the tropical heat, made for their home territory at Fort Crum, New York, near the Canadian border and a far cry from the Caribbean.

The on-the-ground reality here, with US troops so far standing by while the de facto military rulers continue rule by terror, casts doubt on the effectiveness of last weekend's compromise accord brokered by the former US president, Jimmy Carter.

More than 6,000 US troops had arrived in Haiti by last night, including 1,800 Marines, who quietly took over the northern port of Cap Haitien. By the end of the week the number will be around 10,000, according to Colonel Barry Willey, the military spokesman. Colonel Willey could become a household face and name in coming weeks, like the officers who briefed the world during Operation Desert Storm, but his job may not be easy.

What became abundantly clear yesterday, as police and supporters of Father Aristide fought a rock- throwing battle outside the fenced-off harbour that is the US forces' main base, was that the US role is not at all clear. If it is not sorted out quickly, not only are comparisons with Somalia justified, but Haiti could erupt into civil war.

Jimmy Carter's announcement that the UN embargo against Haiti's de facto military rulers could soon be lifted was the final straw for Fr Aristide's supporters. What they say, and it is difficult to dispute it, is that the country's three strongmen - Generals Raoul Ce dras, Philippe Biamby and police chief Lieutenant-Colonel Joseph Michel Francois - conned Mr Carter, and President Bill Clinton, into a deal which consolidates the military leadership.

With the embargo lifted, the military chiefs will not only have called Mr Clinton's bluff and survived, but won a significant victory. It remains to be seen whether Generals Cedras and Biamby will honour their promise to Mr Carter to step down by 15 October. But even if they do, there is nothing to stop them pulling the strings, or finding a way to prevent Fr Aristide's return.

To his supporters here, Fr Aristide's effective rejection of the Carter deal came as no surprise. After being marginalised by the deal, there was little else he could do. Mr Carter's only true claim to success depends on General Cedras keeping his word. But the general promised to step down before, under the Governor's Island accord, which Fr Aristide yesterday insisted was still the one in which he believed.

To make matters worse was the news, revealed by Mr Carter and Mr Clinton, that the US was within minutes of invading Haiti at the weekend and that the generals were opposed to the Carter deal.

It was, Mr Carter insisted, forced upon them by the de facto President, Emile Jonassaint. There is hardly a Haitian, even in the anti-Aristide camp, who believes that Mr Jonassaint, 81, could impose his will on the military men. Yet Mr Carter appears to believe it. And Mr Clinton called off the invasion as a result.

At first, after the accord, most Haitians were confused. It said Fr Aristide would return, and so the majority thought it could not be too bad. Then the US troops arrived and Fr Aristide's supporters felt safer. That is why they demonstrated in support of the exiled president alongside US vehicles. But police broke them up.

The Americans were close to being sucked into yesterday's violence. It is difficult to see how they can stay out of it in the future. The commander of the Haiti operation, General Hugh Shelton, shocked many here on Monday when he said he had agreed with General Cedras that Haitian troops would help the US keep the peace. Only a few days earlier, General Cedras was being billed by Mr Clinton as a dictator, torturer and killer.

Letters, page 17

(Photograph omitted)

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