WASHINGTON -- The United States seized yesterday on Haiti's expulsion of international human rights observers to call for tighter economic sanctions against the island's military dictatorship while keeping its invasion option open.
"We have got to bring an end to this," President Clinton told a news conference in Berlin at the end of a European trip.
He condemned Haitian dictator Lt. Gen. Raoul Cedras' decision Monday to expel the United Nations and Organization of American States observers today as "just the latest expression of the desperation of that illegal regime."
"This is a not only illegal but highly repressive regime and we have to keep the pressure up," he said, adding that the expulsion "certainly validates the position we've taken."
The United States has clamped full-scale economic sanctions on Haiti, and Mr. Clinton said that the expulsion should "stiffen the will of the international community" to do the same.
Specifically, the United States will push for other countries to join it in freezing Haitians' assets and banning financial transactions with Haiti. In addition, France is being pressed to discontinue flights to Haiti by Air France, the only foreign carrier still operating there.
With Haiti's generals remaining defiant and thousands of refugees streaming from the island, Mr. Clinton must decide how much longer to wait before abandoning economic pressure and resorting to force.
The United Nations Security Council issued a statement yesterday calling the expulsion of U.N. observers "a serious escalation in the defiant stance" of Haiti's military dictators, and warned, "This provocative behavior directly affects the peace and security of the region."
Heightening the escalating rhetoric, the administration's top adviser on Haiti, William H. Gray III, warned that the presence of 2,000 U.S. Marines, who arrived off Haiti Monday, should be taken by the junta as "very serious."
Haiti has 7,000 army and militia troops, but they are poorly equipped and trained, and would be able to offer little more than token resistance to a U.S. invasion force. The U.S. military already has rehearsed operations by the Marines and special forces, including Navy SEALS and Army Rangers, to seize the airport and docks at Port-au-Prince, which would provide entry points for the U.S. invasion force.
With the heavily armed Marines and a dozen U.S. warships sailing off the coast of Haiti, Mr. Clinton now has a powerful first-strike force awaiting his orders.
But inside the Pentagon, where there is scant enthusiasm for military action, the feeling is that the expulsion of the U.N. observers could encourage support for a U.S. invasion.
"This may have people thinking about whether or not they really do object to having us go in and take them out," said a Pentagon official.
Another difficulty the United States is having is putting together an international peacekeeping force that would help the transition to democracy on Haiti once the generals were removed.
The United States is seeking support from other members of the "Friends of Haiti" group within the United Nations -- Canada, France, Argentina and Venezuela -- for a long-term peacekeeping force. Some commitments of troops already had been made, according to the Pentagon official, but no details were available.
It would take about 15,000 troops to help restore democracy, train the military and administer humanitarian aid on the island once the generals have gone.
The Pentagon official said: "It's extremely important to be at least close to the point we feel we have got the ability to put together a post-Cedras peacekeeping force."
One reason: The administration is anxious to avoid having President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, ousted by the military in 1991, appear to be a U.S. "puppet," once he is returned to power.
"Nobody wants the picture of a puppet regime there," said the Pentagon official.
Another reason: The administration does not want to get boggeddown in Haiti. The last time the United States intervened in Haiti, its troops were there for 19 years, from 1915 to 1934. This memory has haunted the Pentagon top brass, as they have insisted that the way out of Haiti must be as carefully planned as the way in.
In the latest military move to bolster the armed presence off the island, the amphibious command ship USS Mount Whitney left Norfolk, Va., yesterday to join the Navy flotilla in the Caribbean. It is packed with the sort of communications equipment needed to coordinate joint operations between the armed services.
It will relieve the USS Wasp, a helicopter carrier with 650 Marines on board, which went south on a routine training exercise eight weeks ago and has been kept in the area.
The Wasp will return to Norfolk, where it will become the command ship for a new Marine expeditionary unit, which will sail back to Haiti in August to relieve the Marines now there with the assault group headed by the USS Inchon. The long-term changeover plans are unlikely to affect any invasion decision.
Yesterday, 12 young men were found shot to death near Morne-a-Bateau, a hamlet 19 miles west of Port-au-Prince, the private Haitian Press Agency reported.
The victims were intending to flee Haiti by boat, independent Radio Quisqueya reported. It quoted residents as saying that the bodies apparently were taken to the site and dumped.