US Works to Secure Haiti's Streets
After clash, civilians continue to back troops and turn in arms, as police leave their posts
PORT-AU-PRINCE, HAITI — IN the aftermath of the first clash between Haitians and United States soldiers, uncertainty over what will come next weighs heavily on both sides.
Haiti's superior officers are publicly telling their troops to cooperate in order to ensure a peaceful transition to democracy. But the underlying message they are giving is to fear and distrust US troops, which could manifest itself in more shootouts.
And US forces are nervous and edgy as a result of unclear directives and constantly shifting policy. Their mission changed dramatically on Sept. 18 from invasion to peaceful occupation and then incrementally during the following week as US officials announced they would, in fact, intervene in Haitian-on-Haitian violence in some circumstances, and they did contemplate weapons confiscation, neither of which were originally part of US plans.
``So far, things have gone far better than expected,'' says Capt. Michael Hamill, whose headquarters is on the runway of Haiti's international airport. ``Reception by the Haitian people has been outstanding. But a few things like what happened in Cap-Haitien could change the whole thing overnight. Everything here is so political.''
According to reports from Cap-Haitien, the country's second-largest city, about 800 Haitian police, soldiers, and civilian gunmen had fled or were in hiding after Saturday night's shootout, leaving US Marines in control of security in the city.
The Marines yesterday backed off their initial report that armed Haitians were the first to fire after a demonstration by pro-democracy supporters outside police headquarters in Cap-Haitien degenerated into a gun fight. They now say US troops opened fire after a Haitian soldier made a motion to bring his Uzi machine gun up to his shoulder.
Col. Tom Jones, commanding officer of the Marine Air-Ground Task Force in Cap-Haitien, defended his troops' actions. In a press conference Sunday, he said the decision by the platoon officer was the right one. He repeated what he had told his troops before they got off the ship: ``If you need to use deadly force, I will back you 100 percent.''
Haitian Army Commander Lt. Gen. Raoul Cedras traveled to Cap-Haitien Sunday morning with US Ambassador William Swing and Lt. Gen. Hugh Shelton, commander of the US operation in Haiti, to investigate the situation.
General Cedras's power has been neutralized since his military-backed government signed a Sept. 18 agreement with the US designating Oct. 15 as his resignation date. Cedras criticized the US military Sunday, accusing Colonel Jones of committing atrocities and demanding he be relieved of his command and court-martialed.
US troops secured police headquarters in Cap Haitien Sunday while applauding Haitians cheered them on. Later, Haitian citizens ransacked the building, taking weapons, furniture, and even tubas and trombones.
According to an eyewitness, most of the weapons were turned over to US forces, though a few were scuttled away. US Marines set up checkpoints across Cap-Haitien, trying to keep the chaotic scene from turning dangerous.
There have been no reports to date of attacks or even harassment of US soldiers by Haitian civilians. There have been instances where clashes between the Haitian military and civilians have occurred, but US troops have not yet become involved.
The overriding concern is that armed civilians, temporarily lying low, may wait for a more opportune time before they start with sniper shots specifically aimed at US troops.
``We have to be prepared for this sort of thing,'' a US officer says. ``We won't do anything differently. This is what we're trained for, and if that happens, we know how to defend ourselves.''
Meanwhile, from exile in Washington, President Jean-Bertrand Aristide urged the United Nations to ease sanctions against Haiti without lifting them completely before he has returned to office in Port-au-Prince.
He also, in a message of condolence to the families of those killed Saturday night, called for ``the urgent need for immediate disarmament. The success of the mission to restore peace, reconciliation, and justice to Haiti,'' Aristide said, ``is linked to this key issue.''