PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti - As dozens of Marines arrived yesterday to secure the U.S. Embassy, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell sought to head off a bloody clash for control of the Haitian capital, urging opposition politicians to accept a power-sharing deal with President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.
Early yesterday, the Haitian opposition was poised to announce its rejection of the proposal. But in a conference call with about 20 opposition leaders, Powell asked them to take another 24 hours to consider a proposal from U.S. and international diplomats to end a violent insurrection sweeping across the impoverished Caribbean nation.
Powell made it clear that "it was important that they accept the plan, and that we cannot support a government that comes to power through violence," said Adam Ereli, a State Department spokesman.
Opposition leaders responded that they would wait another day before publicly rejecting the deal. They warned that to accept the deal would embolden armed rebels controlling half of Haiti's territory and violent gangs Aristide maintains to harass political opponents.
An expected march on Port-au-Prince by armed rebels prompted the United States to send 50 Marines to secure the U.S. Embassy, a walled, two-story complex near the capital's most-violent slums. Most nonessential personnel were evacuated last week. Those still here have been working from their homes since the embassy closed Friday.
Powell's appeal appeared aimed at giving opposition leaders more time to re-evaluate a plan presented to the mainstream political opposition on Saturday by a delegation of diplomats from the United States, Canada, the Caribbean Community and the Organization of American States.
It calls for appointing a new prime minister acceptable to Aristide's Lavalas Party and the opposition coalition as a first step toward organizing elections that should have taken place last year.
U.S. officials emphasized that if the proposal is accepted, the international community would make sure that the deal's terms are observed by all parties, including Aristide, Ereli said. He said that once the deal was accepted, international police could enter the country to help bring order.
Asked what would happen if the opposition rejects the offer, Ereli warned that "the consequences would be serious for Haiti."
Ereli acknowledged that opposition leaders who have been meeting in Port-au-Prince are not affiliated with the rebels and former army officers who have been fighting the government in the northern section of the country. But he said U.S. diplomats hope that a deal will have the effect of calming the population and ending the insurrection.
Scores of opposition groups in the Democratic Platform alliance have said from the outset that they will take part in negotiating new institutions of power only after Aristide resigns. They blame him for corruption, poverty and repression.
While Powell's personal intervention served to postpone collapse of the diplomatic initiative, other signs pointed to an impending confrontation in Port-au-Prince. The armed militants who on Sunday seized control of Cap Haitien - the second-largest city - vowed to march on the capital in the next few days.
Prime Minister Yvon Neptune appealed to Port-au-Prince residents to "mobilize" and repel any attack.
The armed rebels occupying the north and central plains, whose uprising has claimed at least 70 lives since Feb. 5, number only a few hundred but are reported to have armed sympathizers in the capital who could be mobilized at any moment. The ragtag bands of rebels encountered little resistance when they swept through about 20 towns and cities. Demoralized police fled, surrendered their weapons or joined the uprising.
In urging residents to help defend the capital, Neptune noted that police were fearful because insurgents have targeted law enforcement officers. At least 40 of those killed have been police.
In Cap Haitien, the rebels continued looting the city and hunted down militant Aristide supporters who had been terrorizing residents in recent months.
Some radio reports quoted rebel gunmen as saying that Aristide loyalists were being detained for their own protection, while others said they would face retribution.
Powell has said that Aristide remains Haiti's elected leader and must be allowed to serve out the two years remaining in the five-year term he won in November 2000. Opposition parties boycotted that election to protest alleged fraud and intimidation by Aristide's Lavalas Party during a parliamentary vote six months earlier.
Haiti has been in an economic and social tailspin since then. Foreign aid donors cut off an estimated $500 million in assistance and loans to pressure Aristide to uphold democratic standards. Poverty, already worse here than anywhere outside of sub-Saharan Africa, has deepened, leaving half the population of 8.5 million malnourished, up to 70 percent unemployed and a swelling majority of Haitians illiterate.
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.