U.S. general recommends troop pullout from Haiti; Growing turmoil threatens soldiers, officer contends

THE BALTIMORE SUN

WASHINGTON -- The commander of U.S. forces in Latin America and the Caribbean has recommended the withdrawal of American troops from Haiti, saying the country's increasing political turbulence is placing them in danger.

In closed-door testimony last month to a defense subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee, Marine Corps Gen. Charles Wilhelm, head of the Southern Command, said that the deployment of 500 U.S. troops should be "terminated" and replaced by periodic visits by U.S. military personnel.

Wilhelm's comments were reported yesterday in the Washington Post.

A senior aide to the general, who confirmed the report, said that should the Clinton administration decide to continue the U.S. presence in Haiti, Wilhelm would follow orders to the best of his ability.

The general "was asked his opinion from a military standpoint, and he gave his opinion," said Col. Vince Ogilvie, head of public affairs for the Southern Command. Ogilvie said that Wilhelm did not in any way "try to give the impression that he cannot or will not comply with the orders that he is given."

The Haiti mission began in 1994 when 20,000 U.S. troops invaded the island to restore the democratically elected government of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

Aristide, a popular Roman Catholic priest, had been overthrown by the country's military leaders in 1991.

Having restored Aristide to power, U.S. troops dwindled to the present force of about 500, who are involved in such tasks as digging wells, providing medical services and training police and military officers.

While the administration had hoped that the governments of Aristide and his successor, Rene Preval, would lead to stability in Haiti, the Western Hemisphere's poorest country, that has not been the case. Preval dissolved Parliament last month and has been ruling by decree.

Economic conditions haven't improved substantially, and Haitian refugees have again been undertaking the risky journey in leaky boats to Florida.

Wilhelm reportedly told the subcommittee that given the country's deteriorating economic and political climate, he thought his troops would be placed at risk.

"We constantly review our troop presence in Haiti," David Leavy, spokesman for the National Security Council, said yesterday. "The president is committed to reduce and eventually withdraw our forces there. We have not made any final decisions and we continue to be committed to Haiti's democratic transition."

Pub Date: 3/14/99

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