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U.S. Cutters Return First 381 of Fleeing Haitians

By Lee Hockstader
The Washington Post

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti

Denied asylum by the United States, 381 Haitians who fled political chaos and economic turmoil in their country were shipped back home Monday from Guantanamo Bay Naval Base aboard two U.S. Coast Guard cutters.

Their faces expressionless and their voices subdued, they stood under the gaze of a dozen blue-uniformed Haitian immigration officials at the docks here and told journalists that they expected no problems from the authorities.

Many of the estimated 12,500 Haitians at the U.S. base in Cuba or aboard patrolling cutters have said they fled violence and repression and feared further persecution. But at least upon their arrival Monday -- with Red Cross officials, U.S. diplomats, and a horde of journalists watching -- there were no signs of trouble.

The Red Cross furnished each of the returnees with $15 in cash and food vouchers to provide a family of five with beans, rice, cooking oil and other staples for nearly month. Haitian immigration officers took the returnees' fingerprints and personal information. A Red Cross shuttle bus gave them a lift to the bus station. Most were expected to return to villages on the other side of this Caribbean nation of 6 million people. There was no way to know Monday what awaited them there.

"They seem fine and they were very well treated" by the Coast Guard, said Jean Ayoub of the International Committee of the Red Cross. He added, however, that they seemed "a little bit afraid of the unexpected." Asked if he expected any of the repatriated Haitians to be targeted for reprisals by the military, Ayoub said: "We have to wait and see. I don't think so [but] this is the first day."

Since a Sept. 29 military coup toppled president Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the country's first freely elected leader, the 6,000-man Haitian army and police have carried out a campaign of terror and intimidation against the Aristide's supporters, international human rights groups say. Aristide, a leftist Roman Catholic priest, is popular with Haiti's poor people, and the army and police have targeted the slums.

Obviously wary of the danger of being tagged as backers of Aristide, most of those interviewed by journalists Monday presented themselves as apolitical. Several even insisted they had never intended to flee the country at all, and were simply out fishing when they were picked up by the Coast Guard.

Most of those who fled beginning a month after the coup were practically destitute, having sold their possessions for passage on rickety, barely seaworthy boats. Their destination was Florida, but none is known to have made it. The Coast Guard says all who did not drown were picked up, and most were taken to Guantanamo.

Following a decision Friday night by the U.S. Supreme Court, the Bush administration ordered that the repatriation of the Haitians begin. The two cutters -- the 210-foot Steadfast, with 162 Haitians aboard and the 270-foot Bear with 219 -- docked here after crossing the Windward Passage from Cuba -- a voyage that ordinarily takes about 14 hours. The Haitians received two hot meals aboard the cutters before they were dropped off in this capital.

Two more cutters are expected to arrive here Wednesday, and U.S. authorities say they intend to return the Haitians at a rate of about 1,000 a day until the tent city that had been erected at Guantanamo is empty.