WASHINGTON -- The United States will begin sending about 600 military trainers and engineers to Haiti on Thursday as part of a United Nations-backed plan to stabilize the country and restore its exiled president, administration officials said.
A U.S. Navy ship is scheduled to depart Norfolk, Va., Thursday with about 250 military specialists and tons of construction equipment aboard, then pick up scores of Navy engineers in Puerto Rico before arriving in Port-au-Prince Oct. 10, the officials said.
A second U.S. ship is to leave Norfolk Oct. 14 and arrive in the Haitian capital four days later.
President Clinton signed an order yesterday approving the troop deployment, which eventually will be augmented by a corps of 567 police trainers from seven nations.
U.S. diplomats and defense officials said the primary mission of the U.S. troops will be to assist in the basic training and "professionalization" of Haiti's free-wheeling military, which has largely ruled Haiti with impunity since toppling President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in a 1991 coup.
Under the terms of a political accord signed July 3 at Governors Island in New York, Father Aristide and Haiti's military chief, Gen. Raoul Cedras, agreed to welcome the foreign troops as a means of bringing peace to the country and ending its two-year international isolation.
The U.N. Security Council last week cleared the way for yesterday's order by unanimously approving the creation of the 1,270-person presence. The cost of the six-month effort is estimated at $50 million.
Administration officials stressed that the U.S. mission is technical and humanitarian in nature, and should not be construed as military intervention.
Still, they acknowledged they hoped the U.S. presence will help dissuade Haitian authorities from repressive acts and divert them with nation-building activities.
Haiti's military leaders will be held responsible for the safety of the U.S. personnel, the U.S. officials said. "We've told the Haitian military that we expect them to provide full security," a State Department aide said.
The U.S. personnel will carry side arms for personal protection, as has been their practice in similar missions elsewhere, the officials said. The full U.S. presence is expected to be in place two weeks prior to Aristide's return, scheduled for Oct. 30.