PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti - With a growing rebel uprising closing in and security forces nowhere in sight, Haiti's capital collapsed yesterday into a chaos of street executions, arson and looting.
Masked gunmen patrolling the city in pickups fired into the air while looters raided dockside warehouses. Pistol-waving youths at downtown roadblocks robbed foreigners of money, cell phones and, in some cases, their cars.
Bodies, some mutilated, lay in the streets.
More than three weeks into an armed uprising that has quickly seized the northern half of the country, it appeared that an increasingly isolated President Jean-Bertrand Aristide finally had unleashed his chimeres - Creole for "monsters" - in a desperate last bid to remain in power.
While Aristide has been asking for an international peacekeeping force to quell the uprising, no such troops appeared to be forthcoming while Aristide remained in office.
However, U.S. officials confirmed yesterday that they were considering dispatching an expeditionary force of 2,200 Marines to stand by in the waters off this impoverished Caribbean nation of 8 million. The Marines could protect the estimated 20,000 American citizens here and guard against a potential flood of refugees fleeing the island for places such as Florida.
President Bush said the United States also was joining in preparations for an international peacekeeping force, but it would be sent only after a settlement between Aristide and the political opposition.
Such an agreement seemed unlikely between sides that have been stalemated over flawed elections for four years. The opposition has demanded that Aristide resign; Aristide vowed again yesterday to remain in office until his term expires in 2006.
Yesterday, the rebels moved easily into the key town of Mirebalais, some 25 miles northeast of the capital. Rebel commander Guy Philippe, still at his base of operations in the northern port of Cap-Haitien, indicated plans to encircle Port-au-Prince by land and sea but hold off on attacking.
Plumes of gray smoke rose over the city of 1.5 million as government supporters erected flaming barricades to impede a rebel advance. Crowds at the National Palace chanted "Five years!" - a reference to the full term that they demand Aristide be allowed to complete.
While the rebels remained outside Port-au-Prince, killing had begun in the city. On a downtown street a few blocks from the palace, the bodies of two men - one with his hands bound behind his back, both with their heads partly blown off - lay amid shell casings left behind in an apparent warning.
Another man was found dead with his groin cut out, and a fourth was shot to death amid the looting at the port facilities.
Local radio reported other killings, but while anarchy ruled, it was impossible to obtain a complete count. More than 80 Haitians have died in the uprising, which began Feb. 5 in the northern city of Gonaives.
Some of the violence appeared to target foreign journalists. Reporters, photographers and cameramen were harassed; some said that guns were held to their heads and their cameras and other equipment stolen.
Foreigners crowded the international airport to learn that American Airlines had postponed all flights in and out of the capital.
With most businesses shuttered, Haitians lined up at markets and at least one gas station to stock up on dwindling supplies.
With no police in sight, hundreds looted the port, breaking into shipping containers and pulling out frozen chicken parts and pork loins melting in the tropical swelter. Others took television sets, furniture and other goods.
"There's a lot of humanitarian aid down there," Wyk Lemke, head of the Haitian Shipping Association, told the Associated Press. "If it gets worse, it could all go."
Officials said the U.S. Embassy in downtown Port-au-Prince, augmented by a force of 50 Marines that arrived earlier in the week, remained secure.
Philippe, the rebel leader, outlined a new strategy to take the capital. After repeated boasts that he would be in Port-au-Prince for his 36th birthday tomorrow, and a day after warning that an attack on the national palace was imminent, he said yesterday that he planned to close off the city and wait.
The Orlando Sentinel is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.