PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti – Haiti's key rebel leader promised Wednesday his forces would lay down their arms after 1,000 U.S. Marines began patrolling the impoverished capital to restore order and prepare for the arrival of international peacekeepers.
If Guy Philippe (search), a rebel boss and former police chief, can make good on his vow, it would mark the end of the rebellion that broke out Feb. 5, drove President Jean-Bertrand Aristide (search) into African exile Sunday and left at least 130 Haitians dead.
The 15-nation Caribbean Community, meanwhile, refused to join an international peacekeeping force in Haiti and called for an independent international inquiry into Aristide's allegations that he was forced out office by the United States.
Jamaican Prime Minister P.J. Patterson (search) said CARICOM was "extremely disappointed" at the involvement of "Western partners" in the hasty departure of Aristide. He charged that the U.N. Security Council had ignored an urgent Caribbean appeal to it on Thursday to send peacekeepers to Haiti before Aristide was forced out.
Aristide remained in the Central African Republic, where he had been flown to exile in a U.S.-government-chartered jet, unable so far to find a country that will grant him permanent residence.
The Marines moved out of their bivouac at the presidential palace Wednesday in a first reconnaissance mission since they began arriving on Sunday. They walked and drove machine-gun mounted Humvees 30 blocks over trash-strewn streets.
The troops used their vehicles and their hands to push burned cars from roadways and riflemen watched the streets for any signs of resistance. Encountering none, the Marines returned to the palace that had been the seat Aristide's power before his departure Sunday, marking the second time he had been deposed from power.
The death toll in the rebellion has continued to rise despite Aristide's ouster, reaching at least 130 Wednesday as workers at the Port-au-Prince hospital said an additional 30 bodies had been brought to the morgue since Sunday.
Col. Mark Gurganis, 49, commander of the U.S. troops in Haiti, told reporters he and other U.S. officials asked Philippe during a meeting Wednesday "to honor what he said he was going to do and lay down his arms."
Holding out the hope that the spasms of violence would now end, Philippe said rebels wanted peace.
"Now that there are foreign troops promising to protect the Haitian people ... and they have given the guarantee to protect the Haitian people ... we will lay down our arms," Philippe told a news conference.
Some of his fighters looked on glumly as Philippe said: "This may be the last statement that we're giving here in the name of the Liberation Front."
One of the rebels said, however, there was no question fighters would obey orders.
"Sure, some of us may not be happy about the decision to lay down arms, but we are army," said Francois Ferdinand, 44, a 12-year army veteran. "We have a hierarchy, commanding officers and we'll always obey orders."
The rebels then abandoned the former army headquarters, which they moved into upon arriving in the capital on Monday.
The rebels have said they want to rebuild the army, which Aristide disbanded in 1995, a year after he was returned to power by 20,000 U.S. troops. He had been deposed in a military coup in 1991 after becoming Haiti's first democratically elected leader in 200 years of independence.
Also Wednesday, Haiti's political opposition met with interim President Boniface Alexandre, demanding that he dismiss and perhaps arrest Prime Minister Yvon Neptune -- a top member of Aristide's Lavalas party.
Alexandre, making his first address to the nation since the former Supreme Court chief justice was sworn in on Sunday, said "I did not ask for this position but I gladly accept it because ... it is every Haitian's responsibility to search for solutions to the current crisis."
Referring to the rebels as "patriotic men of honor," he asked them to disarm and help rebuild Haiti, the Western hemisphere's poorest nation. He also asked Aristide loyalists to rid themslves of weapons, assuring them of a role in rebuilding Haiti.
Neptune estimated damage due to looting and pillaging during the rebellion at $300 million. He declared a state of emergency. But given the current lack of government control, it was unclear what affect, if any, such a declaration would have.
Foreigners, Haitian-Americans and a few Haitians who had been trapped in Haiti by flight cancellations began trickling into the capital's international airport to catch the first commercial flights from the island since many airlines suspended service last week.
Earlier Wednesday, rebels and militant Aristide loyalists fought a running gunbattle that lasted an hour in La Saline, a slum near the looted seaport. Three people were killed, Radio Metropole reported.
With 1,000 Marines on the ground amid a heavily armed population, the Pentagon said the U.S. forces did not plan to engage armed Haitian fighters unless fired upon.
According to the Pentagon, the Marines' mission was to contribute to a secure environment in Port-Au-Prince and promote a constitutional political process after Aristide's resignation.
They also must help with the delivery of humanitarian aid, as needed, and protect U.S. citizens in Haiti "as may be required," according to a Pentagon statement released Sunday as the Marines were deployed.
The Marines are not mandated to seek out rebel forces to disarm or otherwise engage them, and there was no intent to get involved in stopping looting or other crimes, U.S. officials said.
But on Tuesday afternoon Marines flexed their might when rebels drove up to the airport in a pickup and an SUV and announced they were looking for Neptune, the prime minister, and other officials. The Marines came out the airport compound in two Humvees mounted with .50-caliber machine-guns. The rebels quickly left, Staff Sgt. Christopher Smith.
"As soon as we rolled up, they beat it out of there," Smith said Wednesday.
Smith said he was eager to move into the streets.
"We're here for a purpose. Just like police anywhere, we're here to do a job, and we're not getting it done just sitting here at the airport," he said, holding a shotgun loaded with non-lethal beanbag rounds.
Opponents accused Aristide of breaking promises to help the poor and masterminding attacks on opponents by armed gangs -- charges he denied.
He was staying in the presidential palace in the Central African Republic, the African country's foreign minister, Charles Wenezoui said.
"Aristide really likes to read" and has slept a lot, said Wenezoui. "We're about to give him a television and satellite dish so that he can monitor news around the world."