WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- Facing an overwhelming flood of refugees from Haiti, the Clinton administration blocked the boat people from gaining asylum in the United States yesterday and intensified pressure on the island's military dictators by dispatching four more warships and 2,000 Marines to the area.
The administration's latest policy change on Haiti -- barring U.S. residence for any refugees picked up at sea -- is meant to discourage the exodus, now at record levels, and prevent more Haitians from drowning as they try fleeing in flimsy boats.
The Navy amphibious assault group was sent, the administration said, to be ready to evacuate Americans from the impoverished island. But the ships packed enough punch to launch an attack if the Clinton administration decided to end the crisis with an invasion.
The White House insisted that no invasion would occur in the next few days, but it clearly wants to rattle Haiti's military rulers in hopes that they will abandon power peacefully.
The actions came as President Clinton embarked on a four-nation European visit and a summit in Naples, Italy, with leaders of the seven largest industrial democracies and Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin. The moves seem intended partly to prevent Haiti's refugee crisis from worsening during the president's trip and forcing him to launch military action while overseas.
The rush of refugees reached 3,247 Monday -- twice the previous single-day high set in May 1992 -- and about 150 would-be refugees drowned off St. Marc, Haiti, when their 40-foot boat, filledwith more than 300 people, capsized.
In its policy shift, the administration announced that only Haitians who undergo refugee processing inside Haiti would be eligible for political asylum in the United States.
Those picked up at sea who are deemed eligible for asylum will be granted "safe haven" in Panama, Dominica or Antigua and will be returned to Haiti once the political crisis is resolved. Those who do not meet the asylum requirement of a well-founded fear of persecution will be returned to Haiti as they are now.
Refugee processing will continue on the hospital ship USNS Comfort, anchored at Kingston, Jamaica; the U.S. base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba; and at a site to be opened next week on the Turks and Caicos Islands.
Yesterday's announcement represented President Clinton's third policy shift on Haiti.
While campaigning for president, Mr. Clinton had denounced the Bush administration's policy of forcibly returning all Haitian boat people intercepted at sea, but later adopted the policy himself.
On May 8, Mr. Clinton reversed his stance and said would-be refugees would be interviewed on shipboard instead of automatically being sent back. That policy went into effect only three weeks ago, and more than 12,000 Haitians have already been picked up.
"We are pretty much taxed to capacity," said Stanley Schrager, the U.S. Embassy spokesman in Haiti. A maximum of 10,250 Haitians can currently be dealt with at any one time, he said.
Administration officials insisted that the president had not abandoned his policy of granting all Haitian boat people the chance to seek asylum before being returned. When he announced the new policy May 8, the president did not promise that all those granted asylum could come to the United States, administration officials said.
Still, former Maryland Rep. Michael D. Barnes, an adviser to deposed Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, called yesterday's announcement "a major step backwards."
Calls to foreign leaders
Mr. Clinton nailed down the safe-haven arrangements in phone calls to the president of Panama, Guillermo Endara; the prime minister of Antigua, Vere C. Bird; and Prime Minister Eugenia Charles of Dominica just hours before boarding Air Force One for his flight to Europe.
Panama agreed to take up to 10,000 refugees for six months. They will be sent first to U.S. military sites and then to camps on an island off the Pacific coast run by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Dominica and Antigua will accept up to about 2,000 each, also for six months. All three countries say the refugees will be separated from the general population.
"What you see is again an evolution to meet the crisis," said DTC William H. Gray III, Mr. Clinton's special adviser on Haiti. Other officials acknowledged, however, that the administration was startled by the sudden increase in boat people in recent days and felt compelled to act now.
The refugee crisis -- and the refusal of Haiti's three top military leaders to cede power -- have stirred support among Caribbean leaders for a possible invasion, although few are willing to call for it publicly.
Mr. Gray, who met with Caribbean leaders at a regional summit in Barbados on Monday, yesterday modified his earlier assertion that no invasion was "imminent."
"My response is that there is no military invasion imminent," he said.
"However, the military option is on the table. 'Imminent' is defined as something is going to happen in a few days; that is not the case. However, we are looking at that situation as it deteriorates."
He was unable to cite any threat to the 4,500 Americans, besides embassy staff, still in Haiti, but insisted: "We believe there is an increasing deterioration, and that potentially poses a threat to the safety of Americans." He pointed to a series of incidents in which Haitians had been killed or attacked by pro-military forces.
The safety of American medical students was a reason cited for President Ronald Reagan's invasion of the Caribbean island of Grenada in 1983.
The Marines dispatched yesterday are armed with attack and support helicopters, light armored vehicles, amphibious assault vehicles, and howitzers. But a Navy officer familiar with the group's deployment from Norfolk, Va., said a larger force would be required for a U.S. invasion.
"Could it be a piece of the puzzle, an important element in knocking the door down?" the officer said. "Of course. Would it be all that you would use? No way."
In the Pentagon, another Navy officer, who insisted on not being named, said: "Our term is enablement -- going in, kicking the door down, and making things happen initially while heavier forces arrive."
If an invasion came, the Marines would spearhead the attack, surging onto the island by helicopter and landing craft.
The Marines' immediate task would be to protect Americans and secure such tactical targets as the airport, the docks, the U.S. Embassy and the radio station. The main invasion force would be flown from the U.S. mainland within hours.
The four-ship amphibious assault group, led by the assault ship, or small carrier, USS Inchon, will sail from Norfolk today. It will stop at Morehead City, N.C., tomorrow to pick up 2,000 Marines and will arrive off Haiti later this week. Another amphibious assault ship, the USS Wasp, with 650 Marines on board, is in Guantanamo Bay, 100 miles from Haiti.
The Marine unit has been operating for the past six months off the coasts of Yugoslavia and Somalia.
The ships on way
The amphibious ready group ordered to Haiti comprises:
* The Inchon, designed to put Marines quickly ashore. It is equipped with vertical take-off attack jets, helicopters and landing craft.
* The USS Portland, a dock landing ship with landing craft capable of supporting a major amphibious assault on hostile territory.
* The USS Trenton, an amphibious transport dock, used to transport and land Marines and equipment.
* The USS Spartanburg County, a tank landing ship, which can discharge heavy armor onto land or amphibious landing craft into the sea.
Mr. Schrager, the U.S. Embassy spokesman, said about 3,000 of the 8,000 American citizens registered with the embassy had left Haiti. Most of those remaining are U.S. citizens of Haitian origin or aid workers.