By MARK STEVENSON and IAN JAMES, Associated Press Writers
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti – International peacekeeping efforts forged ahead in Haiti, but a political solution seemed elusive as rebels pressed to re-establish the army ? something Washington opposes ? and former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s supporters demanded his return.
Even as U.S. special forces ran missions in northern and western Haiti to support the country’s National Police in disarming rebels, the shadow of Aristide threatened to push the shaky situation back to the open conflict of last week.
About 3,000 protesters marched in front of the American and French embassies Friday, shouting insults at U.S. Marines in the first massive protest since Aristide fled to Africa on Sunday.
“Up with Aristide! Down with Bush!” the protesters shouted as U.S. troops watched impassively.
“If it comes to that, we will confront the U.S. Marines,” 35-year-old demonstrator Pierre Paul said.
Rebel leader Guy Philippe said later Friday he was gathering signatures for a petition to re-establish the country’s army, blamed for much of the country’s past brutality before being disbanded by Aristide in 1995.
U.S. Gen. James Hill of the Southern Command opposed the idea, saying, “There is no need for a Haitian army.”
Past troops fomented 32 coups in Haiti’s 200 years of independence, and the army’s murderous instincts and corruption are largely blamed for making the Caribbean country one of the most miserable in the world.
The army ousted Aristide, Haiti’s first democratically elected leader, in 1991. Aristide in turn disbanded the Haitian army and replaced it with a civilian police force in 1995, a year after he was restored to power by U.S. troops.
Philippe said he expects to go to court next week to try to revoke Aristide’s order.
Philippe also said he had spoken to rebel commanders to persuade them to disarm. But his adviser, Paul Arcelin, has told The Associated Press that the rebels would keep their weapons as long as Aristide militants were armed.
To support disarmament efforts, U.S. special forces began operating in Cap-Haitien, on Haiti’s north coast, and the western city of Gonaives, and will continue to patrol the country, Hill said.
“Clearly, we’re going to have to be involved in the countryside,” he said during an inspection visit to Haiti.
Meanwhile, Aristide’s Paris-based lawyer said the former president was forced from office. Attorney Gilbert Collard said Aristide told him he did not resign, adding to his supporters’ hopes he might return to Haiti.
Aristide, who remains in secluded asylum in the Central African Republic, acknowledged writing “a note indicating that if his departure prevented a bloodbath, he would leave,” Collard said. But the ex-leader also said that “if he had to resign, he would have done it according to the constitution and not with the push of a foreign power.”
Collard said he was working with a U.S.-based lawyer to try to determine whether the United States, and perhaps France, violated international law by pressing Aristide to step down.
U.S. Marines arrived the day Aristide left aboard a U.S-provided jet. They were followed by French and Chilean troops, forming the vanguard of a U.N.-sponsored peacekeeping force expected to number about 5,000.
Canada said it was sending 450 soldiers within days, and Brazil said Thursday it would send 1,100 soldiers in about three months.
The U.S. Marines so far have met no resistance, though there has been none of the jubilation that accompanied their last intervention in Haiti. In 1994, 20,000 troops ousted a brutal military dictatorship, restored Aristide to power and halted an exodus of boat people.
Opposition leaders have been pressing for the replacement of Yvon Neptune, Aristide’s prime minister. But a seven-member council appointed Friday to choose Neptune’s replacement met for several hours without making a decision.
Aristide lost popularity in recent years as he failed to improve life for Haiti’s poor. His aides lived lavish lifestyles that some allege were fueled by drug trafficking. As opposition grew, some say Aristide used police and militant loyalists to attack his opponents.
Aristide denies those charges and said the violence came from the opposition.