PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — U.S. Marines blocked rebels from chasing officials of exiled leader Jean-Bertrand Aristide as they fled to the airport Wednesday, apparently the first action of American forces in Haiti to prevent further bloodshed.

With rebels patrolling the streets of
Port-au-Prince and their leader threatening to arrest the prime minister, U.S. forces said their mission in Haiti had expanded beyond protecting American citizens and interests to include protection of Haitian civilians from reprisal attacks.

There was no sign of American or French forces, however, as a gunbattle erupted Wednesday between rebels and militant loyalists in the Aristide stronghold of La Salines, a seaside slum of the capital.

A day after declaring himself Haiti‘s new military chief, rebel leader Guy Philippe met briefly with U.S. Ambassador James Foley at the envoy’s residence on Wednesday. Neither side would comment about the contact.

Haiti‘s latest violence started four weeks ago with a bloody, popular uprising leading to the Aristide’s flight into exile Sunday. The death toll rose Wednesday to at least 130, with workers at the Port-au-Prince hospital saying 30 more bodies had been brought to the morgue since Sunday.

At the airport, Marines stood holding their weapons outside the main terminal when rebels arrived, preventing them from reaching dozens of officials Aristide’s Lavalas party who had just gone inside, witnesses said.

Marking a shift in U.S. policy, Staff Sgt. Timothy Edwards said at the airport that the Marines’ mission now also aimed “to protect Haitians from reprisal attacks.”

Also, U.S. Marine Col. Dave Berger told a news conference that the Marines _ who began arriving Sunday night hours after Aristide fled to Africa _ will increase their presence throughout Haiti after Philippe’s declaration of power and threat against the prime minister.

“The country is in my hands!” Philippe announced Tuesday on the radio in between touring the capital in the back of a pickup truck and greeting throngs of admiring Haitians.

Two U.S. Chinook helicopters slowly circled Tuesday over Philippe’s base, the rebel-held northern port of Cap-Haitien, on an apparent reconnaissance mission, said a resident reached by telephone. Some U.S. Marines patrolled Port-au-Prince’s seaport, which was being looted, in a Humvee.

American and French troops in Haiti _ the vanguard of an international peacekeeping force authorized by the U.N. Security Council _ have no orders to disarm Haiti’s factions, said Berger and the commander of the French forces. “We are not a police force,” said Berger.

The Pentagon said there would be some 400 Marines in Haiti by Tuesday. Chile said it was sending 120 special forces to Haiti on Wednesday, the first of about 300. France said it would have some 420 soldiers and police in place by the end of the week.

Speaking in Washington, Assistant U.S. Secretary of State Roger Noriega said Philippe had no real power even as his rebels sought to take advantage of the political chaos.

“He is not in control of anything but a ragtag band of people,” Noriega told lawmakers Tuesday.

The buildup of the U.N.-authorized international peacekeeping presence in Haiti will make Philippe’s role “less and less central in Haitian life. And I think he will probably want to make himself scarce,” Noriega said.

“We have sent that message to him. He obviously hasn’t received it,” he said.

Philippe, who arrived in Port-au-Prince in a rebel convoy on Monday, apparently plans to transform his fighters into a reconstituted Haitian army, which Aristide disbanded in 1995.

The rebel leader has said he was ready to follow the orders of interim President Boniface Alexandre, installed Sunday. But on Tuesday, he incited followers to rally against Prime Minister Yvon Neptune demanding his arrest.

“The head is gone, but the tail remains!” the crowd of 300 chanted outside Neptune‘s office, guarded by several U.S. Marines. The crowd again demanded Neptune‘s arrest.

The whereabouts of Neptune, a top member of Aristide’s Lavalas party and his former presidential spokesman, were unknown. Radio reports said he had been evacuated by helicopter.

Aristide, Haiti‘s first democratically elected leader since independence from France, resigned after an uprising that has killed more than 100 people since early February. Opponents accused Aristide of breaking promises to help the poor and masterminding attacks on opponents by armed gangs _ charges he denied.

Inside the seaside capital, patrolling rebels pointed guns at pedestrians who raised their arms or lifted their shirts to show they were unarmed.

Killings continued, with two more bodies on the streets of Port-au-Prince Tuesday. Charred barricades remained, erected by militant Aristide supporters who rioted and _ with many ordinary poor people _ looted food warehouses before the president fled.

By Wednesday, no permanent home had been found for Aristide. The ex-leader was staying in the presidential palace in the Central African Republic, the African country’s foreign minister, Charles Wenezoui said.

“Aristide really likes to read” and has slept a lot, said Wenezoui. “We’re about to give him a television and satellite dish so that he can monitor news around the world.”

Haiti‘s army ousted Aristide in 1991 and instituted a rule of terror until he was returned to power in an intervention by 20,000 U.S. troops. Washington strongly denies Aristide’s claim that this time, the United States forced him out of office. Associated Press writers Paisley Dodds and Ian James in Port-au-Prince contributed to this report.