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US war games step up pressure on Haiti junta

WASHINGTON - The US has carried out a dress- rehearsal invasion of Haiti in which 1,000 commandos practised seizing ports and airfields. The exercise, held two weeks ago, is part of an escalating campaign by the US to convince Haiti's military leaders that there will be a military intervention if they do not leave voluntarily, writes Patrick Cockburn.

Officials say the plan is for an invasion force of 20,000 men, mostly from the army, in addition to the 2,000 Marines now being deployed offshore. Although the administration would like the junta in Port-au-Prince to leave peacefully, they are determined to force them out of power.

The New York Times says the exercise, similar to that which preceded the invasion of Panama in 1989, involved a battalion of Army Rangers flying from Savannah, Georgia, to 'seize' Eglin air force base in Florida. Eglin represented Port-au-Prince airport. Meanwhile, in the Gulf of Mexico, naval commandos practised capturing a port.

William Gray, the former congressman who now coordinates the administration's Haiti policy, says: 'We don't expect the military regime to be there six months from now. We believe that the dictatorship will step down.'

The wave of refugees leaving Haiti - 14,000 since June 15 - is putting intense political pressure on Washington to act swiftly. Mr Gray has announced that they will be taken to 'safe havens' in Panama, Dominica and Antigua. However, last night Panama's President, Guillermo Endara, said he had withdrawn his agreement to take in up to 10,000 Haitian refugees. He said the US wanted to put the Haitians in military bases, 'but the (Panama) Canal treaties forbid that'.

William Swing, the American ambassador to Haiti, has requested that he be given formal authority to deliver an ultimatum to General Raoul Cedras telling him to leave by a certain date. No decision on this has been reached by the White House. The Pentagon still opposes military action, but, after humiliation in Somalia and Haiti last year, the administration cannot afford to have its bluff called by General Cedras.

In May, under pressure from a hunger strike by the black activist Randall Robinson, President Bill Clinton decided to make it easier for Haitians to seek political asylum in the US. He miscalculated in underestimating the number of Haitians who would then buy passage to Florida on leaky wooden boats.

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