PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti -- U.S. special forces took control last night of the Haitian army's only heavy weapons cache, while American soldiers expressed concern about Haitian police mistreatment of civilians they came to protect.
U.S. special forces seized Haitian anti-aircraft and anti-tank guns and armored personnel carriers, at Camp d'Application, the military academy at Petionville, in the hills outside the capital city.
The weapons will be disarmed today and put on display "for all to see."
The move, agreed upon by Lt. Gen. Henry H. Shelton, the U.S. field commander, and Lt. Gen. Raoul Cedras, Haiti's military strongman, is seen as a major step toward breaking up the Haitian army and ending its ability to resist the return to power of democratically elected President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. It also reduces to small arms fire the military danger facing U.S. troops in Haiti.
General Shelton told General Cedras to order the Haitian army to begin disarming the militia, which has terrorized the country for years.
He also told General Cedras that Haitian police and army attacks on civilians "must stop" -- an order echoed yesterday by President Clinton in Washington.
Haitian police left in their barracks yesterday the shoulder arms they usually carry. But they continued to patrol the streets with .38-caliber pistols at their belts and riot sticks in their hands.
The sticks are menacing enough. They used the sticks Tuesday to attack civilians, while U.S. troops were compelled to watch passively.
Yesterday, Haitian police shoved and threatened people and, in one case, hurtled through a crowd in a van to break up a demonstration. A 9-year-old boy was reportedly shot when Haitian militia tried to arrest his uncle.
U.S. troops arriving yesterday said they were told en route that they could act to protect Haitians as well as themselves and other Americans. But senior officers in Haiti insisted that there had been no change in the rules of military engagement for what is dubbed "Operation Uphold Democracy."
Troops' frustration grows
Tuesday's display of powerlessness frustrated U.S. soldiers who witnessed the slaying of the Haitian demonstrator. It disappointed Haitians hoping for U.S. protection and invited comparisons with the military fiasco in Somalia.
"All the troops here now are extremely pessimistic about the whole mission," said Sgt. Joseph Pontisso, 30, a veteran of Somalia with the 10th Mountain Division, who yesterday was guarding the port where the demonstrator had been killed by police the day before. "Our general command has shown no reason for optimism whatsoever."
Recalling his service in Somalia, he said: "This is the same group that led us there. From the information at my level, this is a misguided venture -- and a lot of flowery words and not a lot of action."
Asked how he felt about leaving maintenance of law and order to the Haitian police and military, Sergeant Pontisso said: "That was an extremely bitter pill to swallow. It still is. I would have liked to have shown the Haitian people that we are here to keep this [violence] from happening.
"We could have disarmed the police, or, at worst, shot them. We weren't given the chance."
Maj. Gen. David Meade, deputy commander of the multinational force and commander of the 10th Mountain Division, witnessed a police attack on Haitian demonstrators. The Haitian security forces "overreacted," he said.
He admitted that his troops, who had expected to be fighting Haitian security forces, were "confused" over rules of engagement that dictate that they now have to cooperate with them. "Why would it not be confusing for soldiers?" he demanded.
Pvt. Manuel Tablado, 19, of Whittier, Calif., complained about the orders yesterday as he guarded the port gates while hundreds of Haitians watched troop movements under the gaze of lightly armed Haitian police. "We thought we had to kill those police, but it isn't in our orders right now."
Along a crowded road, where hawkers sell gas at more than $13 a gallon, two soldiers from the 10th Mountain Division stood guard atop the dock wall, their M-16s at the ready.
"It's a tragic mess," said Private Tablado. "We just don't know what's going on with our general command. Yesterday, if we had gone outside the gates, we could have stopped it."
Sgt. Gene Otto, 27, an eight-year veteran who served in Panama and Somalia, said his troops were "very ticked off" at not being allowed to respond to violence against civilians that occurred in front of them. He said that he saw the Haitian police arriving and tried to warn the demonstrators to leave.
'It's the same as Somalia'
"We told them to run, but here to run is to ask for trouble," he said. "We wanted to do something about it. But the first step is to take care of ourselves because we have a lot to do, and then continue on.
"It's the same as Somalia," Sergeant Otto said, recalling that Somalis welcomed U.S. troops, then turned against them.
Sgt. Steve Jones, a satellite radio operator with the 18th Airborne Corps, said that he was told at a briefing before he arrived that he would be allowed to stop Haitian-on-Haitian violence.
"We were told we were here to protect Americans, ourselves and Haitians," said Sergeant Jones of Westminster. "Basically, it's a misunderstanding over the rules of engagement. I thought we were here to stop that kind of thing."
Haitians, too, were baffled by the U.S. policy.
"Of course, American forces should intervene," said Daniel Vallon, 37, a teacher in Port-au-Prince. "Can you imagine, we had these forces that were here before beating us, oppressing us, and now they are in coalition with the American Army? That is not possible to me.
"I don't say kill the police, or destroy them, but master them," he said.