Possible invasion of Haiti getting closer

The Associated Press

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti Tension mounted Wednesday as low-flying planes dropped American propaganda leaflets on the Haitian capital and a U.S. warship steamed within sight of the port.

The de facto government's Ministry of the Interior and Defense declared a 7 p.m.-7 a.m. partial curfew, prohibiting traffic on "main road arteries" and banning the departure of boats and planes during those hours.

The ministry's statement didn't specify which roads were affected, causing many city residents to rush home before 7 p.m. But a top government aide, reached Wednesday evening by telephone, told The Associated Press that the order affected inter-city highways, not city streets.

The ministry statement said, without elaborating, that the partial curfew was a measure taken "to counter acts of foreign aggression."

Pro-army militiamen beat up some people trying to pick up the American leaflets, which announce the return of Haiti's elected president. Capital Police Chief Michel Francois was heard on the police band ordering soldiers to shoot at the aircraft as they flew over at 2:45 a.m., according to a resident who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity.

"The United States is putting pressure on the army. In return, the (Haitian) army is putting pressure on us," said Merizier Merilus, 35, president of the neighborhood association of Bel Air, a stronghold of exiled President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. "Our lives are in danger."

Ultranationalist politician Vladimir Jeanty, who heard the planes fly over his roof in the Delmas section of the capital, said Wednesday, "The sound of invasion is already in our ears."

The United States has intensified its psychological warfare against Haiti's military rulers in recent weeks, warning that military action could come soon.

President Clinton reiterated that in an interview with The Associated Press and other news agencies on Wednesday.

He said the United States has "exhausted every available alternative" short of invasion. "It is time for them to get out of there," he said.

Fifteen U.S. warships are patrolling offshore, and Pentagon officials are sending two aircraft carriers to join them. A dozen reserve U.S. ships have been activated to send material to Haiti if needed.

Two Army Blackhawk helicopters flew over the capital Wednesday.

In response to the escalation, both the army high command and the Cabinet of the de facto government of President Emile Jonassaint called meetings.

Shelves at many food stores and supermarkets in Port-au-Prince were visibly depleted Wednesday as middle- and upper-class Haitians stocked up, apparently in anticipation of an invasion.

The check-sized leaflets dropped by the U.S. planes feature a photograph of Aristide standing in a suit next to a Haitian flag, palm extended.

On the back, the text reads in the Creole language of Haiti's masses: "The sun of democracy, the light of justice, the warmth of reconciliation, with the return of President Aristide."

No leaflets were seen in strongly pro-Aristide Cite Soleil, where 200,000 people live in poverty, or the Carrefour slum, home to about 100,000.

Mindful of uniformed and plainclothes soldiers and auxiliaries, nervous people intentionally ignored fliers dropped downtown within blocks of the National Palace, seat of the government installed by the army in May, and Haitian army headquarters. Merilus said soldiers picked up the fliers that fell on Bel Air before the people could even read them. "When the plane flew over, the soldiers at the post cordoned off our area and fired their automatic weapons into the air," he said.

The leaders of Merilus's neighborhood group have been in hiding since last month when the army came recruiting for brigades to defend against an invasion.

Since then, truckloads of civilian militia and police patrol Bel Air's streets every night at 7 p.m., beating up and sometimes arresting residents.

Merilus said the recruiters told him there is a plan to wipe out Aristide strongholds if there is an invasion.

"The people are not afraid of the U.S. invaders," he said. "They're afraid of the (Haitian) army taking reprisals."

In the northern port of Cap-Haitien last month, a warship drew a crowd of anti-invasion protesters to the pier. Warships were also sighted Saturday along the coast north of Port-au-Prince. On Sunday, a warship and two patrol boats moved within two miles of shore, U.S. flags waving as several helicopters zipped around. An unidentified airplane flew over Port-au-Prince on Monday night.

Along the 240-mile land border with the Dominican Republic, 2,000 Dominican soldiers are enforcing the U.N. trade sanctions. Argentina, Canada and the United States have sent the first 50 observers for a multinational group that eventually will include 88 monitors and 50 U.S. soldiers.

In Puerto Rico multinational peacekeepers have begun a compressed training schedule that will include 16- to 18-hour days, Green Beret trainers said Wednesday.

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