The emergence of former paramilitary and military leaders accused of atrocities committed during Haiti’s last period of military rule at the head of spreading rebellion against President Jean-Bertrand Aristide has added urgency to international efforts to deal with the ongoing crisis in the Caribbean nation.
The uprising, which has cut off hundreds of towns and villages in the north and central parts of the country from desperately needed relief supplies, is also fueling fears of a major exodus of poor Haitians by boat and across the border into the Dominican Republic, which has taken steps to close its border.
U.S. relief agencies, including CARE and Catholic Relief Services (CRS), have launched an emergency supply effort for cities and towns taken over by rebels, and in areas where barricades have been erected by contending forces.
"The situation is critical," said Dula James, CRS’ Country Representative for Haiti. "Staff have been in contact with communities and partners in the north and report that rural villages lack food, household items, clothing and materials for shelter a result of ongoing violence and looting."
The uprising began Feb 5 when a gang called the Cannibal Army when it was allied with Aristide and later renamed the Artibonite Resistance Front (ARF) seized the police station in Gonaives, the country’s fourth largest city, and subsequently burned and looted other government offices. Several days later, another anti-Aristide gang seized the nearby town of St. Marc, which has since been retaken by government forces.
Tension in Cap-Haitien, Haiti’s second biggest city, has risen steadily since yet another rebel group reportedly led by a former chief of the paramilitary Front for the Advancement and Progress of Haiti (FRAPH), Louis Jodel Chamblain seized the Central Plateau town of Hinche after killing the police chief and two of his officers several days ago. A total of more than 50 people have been killed to date.
The emergence of Chamblain, who apparently slipped across the border from the Dominican Republic where he has lived in exile for almost a decade, and several other personalities associated with FRAPH, drew calls of alarm from human rights groups both in Haiti and other capitals. FRAPH, the descendant of the feared Ton-Ton Macoutes from the Duvalier dynasty, acted primarily as a death squad for the military after it ousted Aristide in 1990 until the former priest was returned to power by 2,000 U.S. troops in 1994.
Chamblain himself was convicted of involvement in the assassination of Antoine Izmery, a prominent pro-democracy activist, while he was attending a Catholic mass in 1993, after Aristide’s return, but as FRAPH leader, he was also implicated in a number of murders that never went to trial. FRAPH was accused by international human rights groups of killing hundreds of suspected Aristide supporters and attacking entire neighborhoods of towns and cities where Aristide was considered particularly popular during the military’s reign.
Reports from Hinche indicated that Chamblain is accompanied by Guy Philippe, Cap Haitien’s police chief under military rule, and Jean Pierre Baptiste, alias "Jean Tatoune" who was sentenced to life imprisonment for his participation in a 1994 massacre that killed dozens of people in Raboteau. Chamblain is reportedly planning attacks on Cap-Haitien.
Chamblain’s forces are said to be equipped with machine guns and other weapons that were apparently cached after Aristide’s return. The beleaguered 5,000-man Haitian police force Aristide abolished the Haitian army in 1995 is no match for such an arsenal, according to reports from Haiti.
"As rebel forces, under leadership of convicted perpetrators of human rights violations, expand their control in the center and north of the country, and the population of conflicted areas is cut off from supplies of food and medicines, fears of a mass population outflow from Haiti are bound to increase," Amnesty International said Wednesday.
U.S. officials have been planning to set up a detention camp at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to temporarily house Haitians intercepted on the high seas, as they did 12 years ago when the base became home to tens of thousands of desperate refugees as military repression reached its height, after the 1990 coup that forced Aristide into exile.
Human rights groups strongly protested the detentions at the time, insisting that Washington was violating international refugee law by denying the refugees the right to claim asylum.
The crisis and the possibility of a major outflow of boat people desperate to reach U.S. shores has forced the Bush administration to take a more active role in the diplomatic discussions about how to deal with the crisis than it had previously been willing to consider.
While some elements of the administration have made little secret of their desire to see Aristide, long seen by right-wing Republicans as a dangerously radical demagogue, ousted from power, Secretary of State Colin Powell, who worked with former President Jimmy Carter in organizing the Haitian president’s restoration in 1994, made clear earlier this week that Washington would not support his ouster by rebel forces. "We cannot buy into a proposition that says the elected president must be forced out of office by thugs," he said Tuesday.
At the same time, Washington has stressed that it hs no plans to intervene directly, although it has not excluded possible U.S. participation in a UN-sponsored police force that could defuse the situation.
The State Department is backing a set of proposals that emerged from a mediation effort by the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), that include the reform and depoliticization of the Haitian police force, the appointment of a prime minister acceptable to the civil opposition, new parliamentary elections, and the disarmament of pro-Aristide gangs.
Aristide agreed to implement these proposals late last month but the opposition has insisted that the president first agree to resign from office. For his part, Aristide has vowed to serve out his elected term, which ends in two years.
The UN Security Council approved a resolution Wednesday that called on both Aristide and the civil opposition to "restore confidence and dialogue, and overcome their differences peacefully and democratically through constitutional means.” The Organization of American States (OAS) is expected to approve a similar resolution Thursday.
If the opposition and Aristide can reach a political settlement based on the CARICOM proposals, "we (and)…the international community (are) prepared to do what we can to help with additional police forces," Powell said in an interview Wednesday. "But right now, there are no plans for the outside world to come in and impose a police or military solution on this problem."
State Department spokesman Richard Boucher stressed Wednesday that Aristide had agreed to implement the CARICOM proposals, and that Washington expected him to do so, while also calling on the civil opposition to use its influence to "take steps to quell the violence and seek only a peaceful, negotiated, constitutional solution to Haiti’s troubles."