PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti – Haiti's (search) rebel leader said his fighters were advancing on the capital Thursday, awaiting an order to attack unless President Jean-Bertrand Aristide (search) resigns. The United States questioned whether Aristide could "effectively continue" in office.
With Haiti's ill-equipped police force not expected to put up much resistance against a rebel assault, government loyalists began building defenses in front of the National Palace in Port-au-Prince (search).
At a U.N. Security Council meeting on Haiti, Caribbean nations called for a multinational force to end the violence. But the United States and France said they want a political settlement first.
In Washington, Secretary of State Colin Powell (search) openly questioned whether Aristide can continue to serve effectively as Haiti's leader -- the closest Powell has come to suggesting that Aristide bow out as president before his elected term ends in February 2006.
"Whether or not he is able to effectively continue as president is something he will have to examine carefully in the interests of the Haitian people," Powell told reporters.
Powell's comments came a day after French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin called on Aristide to resign.
Earlier Thursday, Aristide told CNN he would not quit. He said a small international force -- "a couple of dozen" soldiers or police -- could prompt the rebels to stand down. Referring to the rebels, he said: "At any time those terrorists may come to Port-au-Prince and kill thousands of people."
The insurgents have overrun half of the country since the rebellion began three weeks ago.
Hundreds of Aristide supporters, some armed with machetes and pistols, gathered Thursday in front of the National Palace and, with teenagers driving bulldozers and forklifts, started building a defensive rampart.
"If Aristide goes, cut off their heads and burn down their houses!" they shouted, echoing the war cry of Jean-Jacques Dessalines, the Haitian general who ousted French colonizers from Haiti to end slavery 200 years ago. The Aristide loyalists shouted epithets against France.
It was not known if Aristide was in the palace. A helicopter took off from the palace Thursday afternoon and Haiti's leader usually sleeps at his private estate in Tabarre, a satellite town on one road leading to the airport.
As rumors spread that the rebels were arriving by boat, truckloads of Aristide supporters armed with old pistols were seen heading toward the seaside Carrefour neighborhood.
In Carrefour, gunmen fired shots at the home of Haiti's most prominent architect, Albert Mangones, and wounded a security guard, a family member said. The French Embassy was calling the police to try to evacuate Mangones' widow, an elderly French citizen, and their daughter.
Rebel leader Guy Philippe said the pro-Aristide militants, called chimeres or angry young men, were not his enemies.
"We are calling for everybody to stay home, not to fight against us because we are fighting for them," Philippe said in an interview with The Associated Press in the northern city of Cap-Haitien.
"All those chimeres, we have nothing against them," he said. "We know Mr. Aristide gave them some money and we know how poor they are."
Some 90 miles to the south, Port-au-Prince was a city on edge.
Americans with M-16s guarded U.N. workers and their families on the way to the airport, passing street barricades of wrecked, abandoned cars, rock and tires built by Aristide supporters to block the city from an assault.
Military helicopters of the Dominican Republic, which shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti, were ferrying people from the Dominican Embassy to the airport.
The international airport was packed, mostly with Haitian-Americans trying to return to the United States.
"Anyone is going to want to save his own skin. It's a state of fear," said a 34-year-old Haitian who lives in New York and didn't want to give his name.
Later Thursday, American Airlines canceled its flights between Haiti and the United States until March 3, saying "disturbances" were making it increasingly difficult for employees to reach the airport.
The capital was mainly calm in the morning, a day after sporadic looting erupted, but more and more barricades, some of burning tires, were set by Aristide supporters later in the day. At the roadblocks, people were being robbed. Businesses were shuttered, long lines formed at the few open banks and gas stations, and streets were mostly devoid of people.
Aristide, a former priest of Haiti's slums who in 1990 became Haiti's first freely elected leader, has lost popularity amid accusations he condoned corruption, failed to help the poor and had thugs attack and intimidate political opponents.
But he still retained loyalty among some Haitians, including Jacques Moise, one of those waiting to withdraw cash at the Soge Bank in Port-au-Prince.
"I wish Aristide and the opposition could get together, because for me Aristide had a great vision," Moise said. "I'm afraid all the things he did are going to be destroyed," he said of education programs for street kids and medical clinics for the poor.
One member of an opposition coalition, which denies links with the rebels but shares their insistence that Aristide must go, predicted Aristide would soon fall.
"The day of deliverance has come. Aristide's departure is imminent," opposition politician Claire Lydie Parent said on the radio.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson, visiting Libya, urged the Bush administration to protect Aristide.
"Unless something happens immediately, the president could be killed in our own hemisphere," Jackson said in Tripoli.
The Organization of American States held a special meeting to discuss the crisis. Aristide's foreign minister and chief of staff were in Paris to meet with de Villepin.
Powell said the United States is willing to participate in any international force sent to Haiti to enforce a political settlement. He said France, Canada and Caribbean countries also have indicated willingness to participate.
But at an open meeting of the U.N. Security Council, Jamaica's Foreign Minister K.D. Knight argued against waiting for a political solution.
"The situation is one of utmost urgency and the need for decisive action is paramount," Knight said.
Haitians were fleeing their country in boats, but U.S. authorities said the numbers were relatively small and expressed no alarm. The U.S. Coast Guard intercepted a dozen small boats carrying 546 Haitians near the Haitian coast this week, Coast Guard spokesman Luis Diaz said.
Philippe, the rebel leader, would not say if an attack on the capital was imminent.
"We're just going to take our positions and wait for the right time. They're awaiting the order," he said in Cap-Haitien, Haiti's second-largest city, which fell to the rebels with little resistance on Sunday.
Philippe said the rebels already have sleeper cells in the capital but that they would be reinforced by fighters moving in from variety of locations.
There were no independent eyewitness reports of rebel movement, but there also appeared to be few fighters in Cap-Haitien, where hundreds were seen Wednesday. Cap-Haitien is just 90 miles north of Port-au-Prince, but it is a seven-hour drive over badly potholed roads.