PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (AP) – Six U.S. legislators said Friday they will push for some U.S. marines to remain in Haiti after a three-month mission to stabilize the country, as requested by the Caribbean country’s new U.S.-backed interim leaders.
The bipartisan delegation led by Republican Mark Foley of Florida made the announcement at a news conference after a few hours’ visit to meet with interim president Boniface Alexandre, interim prime minister Gerard Latortue and other officials.
“We are hopeful that this will not be just a few short months that we will be here. We want to be part of helping Haiti in the long term,” Foley said.
Elijah Cummings, a Democrat from Florida, said Haiti’s leaders told them the country is “at a critical stage in its history” and “the solutions must be critical” following the Feb. 29 departure of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Aristide fled under pressure from the United States and France and a rebellion led by ex-soldiers of the disbanded Haitian army.
“Both the president and prime minister have made it clear that they would like to see some presence of United States marines beyond June 1,” Cummings said.
“This is a message that we will take back to the United States” to ensure Haiti has the security needed for development.
U.S. marines arrived within hours of Aristide’s hasty departure and lead a multinational force of 3,600 troops from France, Chile and Canada that is scheduled to hand over to UN peacekeepers June 1.
The U.S. legislators gave no details of how many marines they would like to see remain in Haiti, nor how they would interact with the UN force.
Also Friday, the U.S. military announced a new initiative for disarmament in Haiti, saying they would pay for information leading to arms caches.
Lt.-Col. David Lapan, a military spokesman, said under the U.S. Department of Defence program Haitians could be paid “hundreds or thousands” of dollars for good information, depending on the size and quality of weapons recovered.
Lapan said they did not want to make the mistakes made after the U.S. intervened in 1994 to restore Aristide and oust a military dictatorship. Then, thousands of weapons were turned in under a buyback program but Lapan said many Haitians just went out and bought guns to sell them to the Americans at a profit.
On Tuesday, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan called for the new Brazilian-led mission to include 6,700 troops and more than 1,600 international police and experts to turn the most impoverished country in the Western Hemisphere into a “functioning democracy.”
But Brazil’s President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva said Tuesday that is conditional on “a firm commitment by the international community to rebuild Haiti” and participation by the 15-country Caribbean Community that has refused to recognize Latortue’s government.
Latortue said he is suspending Haiti’s membership in the regional bloc after Jamaica gave temporary asylum to Aristide last month. But he made overtures to Caribbean officials this week, inviting them to a donors’ conference Thursday which he said would “mark a new beginning.”
Caribbean foreign ministers said Friday they would consider asking the Organization of American States to investigate the circumstances surrounding Aristide’s ouster.
Previously, the Caribbean Community called for a UN investigation of Aristide’s departure from Haiti.
Several ministers have said privately the 15-member regional bloc may not have enough support at the UN Security Council to force an investigation because they believe the United States and France would veto the proposal.
Barbados Foreign Minister Billie Miller, who was chairwoman of a meeting of the ministers, said the Caribbean Community considers the Washington-based OAS a leading option. Other ministers, however, said the United Nations is still a possibility.
Haiti dominated the talks at the meeting which began Thursday and concluded Friday.
A meeting on security matters scheduled for early next month in the Bahamas between the Caribbean Community and the United States remains up in the air, Miller said.
The U.S. administration has insisted on inviting Haiti to the discussions with U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge but Caribbean leaders have said they would probably not sit at the table with representatives of a government not elected by Haitians.
“It is left to be seen,” Miller said.
The Caribbean Community, also known as Caricom, has withheld support for the new U.S.-backed interim Haitian government and said it will reconsider the issue in July.
Meanwhile, Miller announced most Caricom countries will send troops or police officers to participate in the UN-led force that would replace the troops now on the ground in Haiti.
“Most, if not all of the Caricom countries have committed to being part of the UN force. This is something we have done in the past,” she said, referring to a force of over 300 soldiers and officers sent to Haiti by Caricom in 1994 when the army was disbanded.