The Washington Post
By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Foreign Service
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti, March 5 — U.S. troops extended their reach beyond the Haitian capital Friday in an attempt to stem political violence in the rest of the country. Haiti’s political leaders, meanwhile, named an interim governing council to help guide the country until it is stable enough to hold new presidential elections.
Five days after President Jean-Bertrand Aristide fled into exile, several thousand of his supporters gathered outside the National Palace to demand his return. U.S. Marines, now numbering more than 1,000 in the capital, observed from the palace grounds. But the crowd remained largely peaceful and dispersed by the afternoon without incident.
The first large shipment of food aid also arrived in the Western Hemisphere‘s poorest nation at a time when the threat of shortages was beginning to alarm humanitarian agencies working here. But the United Nations warned that food shortages were still imminent in much of the countryside because of the sporadic political violence that continued in the wake of Aristide’s abrupt departure.
“I would warn those who see the relative calm in many parts of the country as a sign that law and order has been restored — far from so,” Jan Egeland, the U.N.’s emergency relief coordinator, told reporters at the United Nations. “Beyond the capital, there is a security vacuum.”
As a multinational force built toward an expected 5,000 troops, the capital continued to cool down after days of looting and violence set off by Aristide’s pre-dawn resignation to U.S. officials on Sunday. Aristide, who left office three years into a five-year term in the face of a rising armed insurrection and international pressure, remained in the Central African Republic while he searched for another country to take him.
Food delivery to areas outside Port-au-Prince remained difficult for aid workers and others trying to travel along the country’s few roads. Even in the best of times, many of Haiti‘s 8 million people rely on food aid to survive in a country that has few natural resources.
Anti-Aristide rebels had cut the country in half at the coastal city of Gonaives, and rebel leaders there warned Friday that any new government would have to include at least one of their members. The U.N.’s World Food Program has been trying to avoid the road north from the capital, frequently blocked by the rebels, by shipping relief supplies on barges.
The situation in Cap-Haitien, the largest city in the north, also remained perilous. The U.N. agency said it would not unload the 1,200 metric tons of food it had offshore until it could be assured that armed gangs would not loot it.
Gen. James T. Hill, chief of the U.S. Southern Command, said during a visit Friday that U.S. Special Forces had arrived in Gonaives and in Cap-Haitien. The two cities had become strongholds of the armed insurrection against Aristide, and there were reports Friday that only small groups of rebels had fulfilled their promise to turn over weapons to the Haitian police.
Hill, who met with Haiti‘s interim president and prime minister during his one-day visit, also said that Haiti did not need to rebuild its army, which had instigated many of the country’s frequent coups. Aristide disbanded the army when he was returned to power by U.S. troops in 1994, three years after he was ousted in a military coup. Rebel leaders, many of them former army officers, have called for the army to be reconstituted.
Meanwhile, the three-member commission charged with selecting an interim governing council appointed its members. The seven-member Council of Sages is to select a prime minister to replace Yvon Neptune, a loyal Aristide lieutenant whom rebel leaders and others want arrested for crimes allegedly committed by the former government.
David Lee, chief of the Organization of American States mission in Haiti, said the council consisted of five men and two women selected from academia, human-rights advocacy groups, business, government and the Catholic Church.