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Haiti's Rulers Are Defiant Despite Threat of Invasion

By Douglas Farah
The Washington Post

Defiant even as U.S. warships steamed toward his island nation, the principal Haitian military ruler, Lt. Gen. Raoul Cedras, said he would rather die than step aside and warned that a U.S. invasion would lead to civil war and widespread bloodshed.

Cedras said in an off-camera interview with CBS television that he still is not interested in U.S. offers to go live in comfortable exile. Instead, he declared, he wants to remain in power to build democracy in Haiti.

Cedras' comments in the interview late Wednesday were relayed to reporters here Thursday and broadcast in the United States and Haiti. While many here have expressed doubt that Cedras will stay and risk arrest by U.S. troops, his defiance - and that of de facto President Emile Jonassaint in a late-night press conference Wednesday - mirrored the attitude Haiti's military rulers have displayed throughout the months-long standoff with the Clinton administration.

The United States, after much hesitation, is poised to use military force to remove Cedras and his army colleagues, who overthrew president Jean-Bertrand Aristide in a bloody coup in September 1991, seven months after Aristide was sworn in as Haiti's first democratically elected president. Since then, they have steadfastly clung to power in the face of threats and economic embargoes imposed by the United States and the United Nations.

Cedras said he "would rather die" than surrender, and said, "If I die in the next few hours or days, that would be better than leaving my country in dishonor and leaving my children with a dishonorable name."

Cedras said he was "not interested in any buyout. I am not interested in a comfortable life in exile." He warned, as he has in the past, of bloodshed and civil war if there is an invasion, and the widespread loss of American lives.

He made the comments following reports that the United States was still trying to offer Cedras and two other military leaders a deal that would allow them to leave the country safely, keep the fortunes they have amassed while in power and avoid prosecution for human rights abuses committed over the past three years.

The other two officers are Lt. Col. Michel Francois, the Port-au-Prince police chief, and Brig. Gen. Philippe Biamby, the army's chief of staff. The three have been the country's main leaders since the 1991 coup and have been identified by the Clinton administration and the United Nations as the top leaders who must step down.

The defiant talk is exhausting the patience of many of those who backed the coup. Many of the coup supporters now fear an invasion will lead to a radical restructuring of society, and possible retribution by those who suffered at the hands of the army over the past three years. Most are also suffering severe financial strains because of the international embargo placed on the nation.

"Go ahead and invade us, we deserve it," said one businessman who supported the coup, expressing a growing feeling in the business community. "Cedras is just as inflexible as Aristide, and this is all his fault. I swear I would shoot him on sight if I had a gun."

Despite the statements, there was widespread speculation that Cedras and his family were secretly preparing to leave the country, as almost every military strongman in Haiti has done in the past.

While Cedras' future was debated, other rumors swept through the capital, and some were even reported as fact by local radio stations. One normally reliable radio station reported Wednesday that former President Jimmy Carter, along with Senate Minority Leader Robert Dole, R-Kan., had secretly arrived in Haiti to carry out last-minute negotiations with the army.

"I can tell you honestly no one, and I mean no one, knows what Cedras and those guys are thinking," said a reliable military source. "Most of the rumors are pretty funny, but at the same time, any one of them could be true. You just never know."

The city went about its normal business Thursday as best it could despite the looming threat. There were no signs of panic. But the few people with money stocked up on bottled water and canned food.

Wednesday night Jonassaint, who was named president by the army, vowed Haiti would not give up and said the whole world would face a "surprise" in the next few days.