The Associated Press
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti Ä The United States muscled toward total military control of Haiti on Thursday, breaking up its heavy weapons, guarding pro-democracy activists and giving U.S. troops more leeway to use force.
In a methodical effort to unravel the 1991 coup that overthrew elected President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, American forces also planned to move into the countryside and take over the training of rural police forces notorious for their harsh repression of civilians.
"The progress in the last 72 hours has been, I think, quite remarkable. And our view is that Haiti today is better off than it was yesterday," U.S. Embassy spokesman Stanley Schrager told reporters Thursday.
The Haitian soldiers, who have seemed overwhelmed with the swiftness of the U.S. troops' arrival and increasing influence in their country, watched the convoy's entrance to the weapons depot with astonishment.
"We're still alive so I can't complain. I am very happy to collaborate," said a Haitian soldier who would not give his name. "If there was any sense in fighting we would have. There is no reason to fight our American brothers."
On other fronts, however, the operation was moving much less swiftly and smoothly. Ruling Lt. Gen. Raoul Cedras is balking at leaving the country and parliament remained divided over proposed amnesty for the military, a measure seen as a crucial step toward putting the country back together.
Cedras, a key leader of the 1991
coup, and the other military leaders have to surrender control under the U.S.-Haiti accord, but Cedras isn't required to leave the country, as has been long demanded by Aristide.
"The military problem is on the way to being resolved. Now the problem is political, which is full of uncertainties," Herard Jadotte, a sociologist who served as an aide to two military-backed governments, told The Associated Press.
In an effort to avoid a repeat of the bloody clashes earlier this week between Haitian police and pro-democracy demonstrators, American soldiers have been given more room to intervene in street melees.
U.S. Army Col. Barry Willey, a spokesman for the joint military task force overseeing the operation to restore democracy to Haiti, said Thursday that American soldiers should use their discretion in using force.
Since tear-gassing and beating people bloody on Tuesday, Haitian police have shown more restraint in dispersing crowds that come to the port to watch the arrival of more and more American troops.
In the capital Thursday, U.S. troops occupied the military airfield just north of La Saline, where Aristide, a former Roman Catholic priest, once preached at his church. The 100 Haitian soldiers on duty did not resist.
Meanwhile, a convoy of nine Bradley fighting vehicles and six HumVees arrived at Haiti's only weapons depot in the suburb of Petionville Thursday morning to begin taking the army's heavy weapons apart.
American soldiers were nervous when the convoy moved from downtown, urging a phototgrapher to put on a bulletproof vest. But they relaxed after Haitians cheered and danced along the roadside.
"It's just like a ride through the farm," said Pfc. Gary Utterback of Akron, Ohio.
The weapons company helped spearhead Aristide's ouster. To be dismantled are decades-old, poorly maintained heavy equipment including six V-150 armored vehicles, anti-aircraft weapons and heavy artillery.
The military regime that took over after the 1991 coup was marked by brutal repression against Aristide supporters. Up to 3,000 Haitians have been killed in military-tolerated political violence over three years.
To guard against attempts by hard-liners to exact revenge against Aristide supporters, the United States also sent out troops to guard pro-democracy Haitian leaders including Port-au-Prince Mayor Evans Paul, former campaign manager for Aristide, Schrager said.
"We will secure them as long as necessary until we establish a stable and secure environment," he said.
Most Haitians seem to welcome the more than 9,000 U.S. troops that arrived by Thursday morning, including some 1,000 military police. As many as 15,000 U.S. troops are to be deployed.
In a sign of optimism, Haitian volunteers began cleaning up and repairing downtown streets, and most of the shops that have been closed in recent months began reopening their doors. Vendors clogged the streets.
At one military checkpoint near the port, a young Haitian boy helped an American soldier wheel a tire toward a barricade.
The volunteer crews recalled those that helped clean up the capital after dictator Jean-Claude (Baby Doc) Duvalier fled the country and during Aristide's presidential campaign and before his inauguration.
In another attempt to ease Aristide's scheduled return to power next month, the United States will help return exiled lawmakers to Haiti to approve an amnesty for the leaders and supporters of the 1991 coup, Schrager said.
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