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Haiti's Rebel Leader Backs Off Pledge on Laying Down Arms - 2004-03-02

One day after entering Port-au-Prince, Haiti's rebel leader says he has a mandate from the people to guarantee security in the country. Guy Philippe backed away from previous pledges to lay down his arms as soon as a new president is installed.

Flanked by high-ranking police commanders, Guy Philippe told reporters he is now in charge of much of Haiti's national police force. Mr. Philippe spoke with reporters two days after violence and massive looting erupted upon Jean-Bertrand Aristide's resignation as president.

The rebel leader said he has a moral authority to provide security for the people. He was asked on whose authority he and his armed men are assuming this duty. "The people of Haiti. The people in the streets in Cap Haitien, in Hinche, in Gonaives, in Port-au-Prince, all over the country. I am the chief," he said.

Mr. Philippe is a former Haitian army cadet and regional police commander. He said Haiti's armed forces, disbanded 10 years ago, should be restored. The rebel leader gave an ominous-sounding answer when asked what would happen if Haiti's new president, Boniface Alexandre, refused to comply.

"People in Haiti will talk to him [President Alexandre] as they talked to Aristide," he said.

Mr. Philippe said he wants to unify, not divide, Haiti. He said he wants peace, but issued a warning to those who would challenge his authority. "I am not taking any pressure from anyone," he said. "The only pressure I will take is from the Haitian people. If they want to kill me, they can come and kill me. I am ready to die for my country. And I will flight for my country and my people."

The rebel leader said he has had no contact with U.S. or French troops deployed in Port-au-Prince. Earlier, the commander of U.S. forces in the country spoke with reporters. Marine Colonel David Berger said, in the event of hostilities between rebels and U.S. troops, the rebels would be dealt with "like any other threat."

In a symbolic move Monday, Guy Philippe's men took over Haiti's former army headquarters across the street from the national palace.