PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti – The U.S. Coast Guard (search) repatriated 531 Haitian boat people at a dock near the capital Friday in a bid to choke off a tide of refugees from the troubled country.
It was the first repatriation since Haiti's uprising began Feb. 5 and underscored President Bush's determination not to allow the rebellion to lead to a mass exodus, despite pleas from human rights groups and three Florida lawmakers to allow them refuge.
The Haitians — including infants — were left on the dock on the southern outskirts of the tense capital.
Most said they were fleeing the grinding poverty in Haiti, not because of political motivations or fear of being swept up in the 3-week-old uprising, which has claimed at least 80 lives.
"I saw a boat getting ready to leave, so I got in it," said Dorismond Zidor, 20, who left Feb. 16 aboard a small boat from his hometown of Miragoane, in southern Haiti.
Zidor, who is unemployed, said that after two days at sea without sufficient food or water "the Coast Guard caught us and took us aboard."
"They treated us OK. They gave us some food and water," said Zidor, who now must cope in a city under siege, where armed supporters of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide (search) were manning barricades.
The boat people were processed for repatriation at a Haitian coast guard station. Small boats ferried them from a U.S. Coast Guard cutter offshore.
Most of those waiting to have their names written down at the Haitian coast guard compound said the uprising had little to do with their attempt to leave Haiti.
Some members of the group, their scant belongings gathered nearby, said they wouldn't try the perilous voyage again. Others said they might.
"I might try again, I don't know," said Largesse Cendrille, 27, cradling her year-old daughter, Deuverson. "We left because life is bad here."
Haitian coast guard Divisional Inspector Dupiton Jean-Francois said his countrymen are risking their lives in attempting the trip.
"It is very, very dangerous," he said. "They go out in very small boats 20 or 30 feet long, without any life jackets."
The group was unlikely to be a target of the truckloads of pistol-wielding toughs roaming the streets outside the compound. The gangs, known as chimeres, have in the last two days been robbing Haitians of their cars and money, and the boat people have neither.
Jean-Francois said the repatriation was the first since the rebellion began and was larger than the usual group of 50-100 he brings home each week from the U.S. Coast Guard cutters.
U.S. officials have said the number of Haitian boat people has not increased substantially since the uprising began, but they are on the lookout for a surge.
Under Haiti's brutal military dictatorship between 1991 and 1994, more than 65,000 Haitians were intercepted at sea.