PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti – Three thousand supporters of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide (search) marched on the U.S. and French embassies on Friday, as American Special Forces arrived in Haiti and took up positions near rebel strongholds outside the capital.
A seven-member council helping to form a transitional government met in its first session, meanwhile, discussing the selection of a new prime minister.
The protesters, a few with pistols tucked into their belts, charged past embassies and the presidential National Palace, chanting "Long live Aristide!" and "Down with George Bush!"
U.S. troops watched impassively as the protesters passed.
Outside the U.S. Embassy (search), one young man screamed epithets and then mooned the Marines.
"If it comes to that, we will confront the U.S. Marines (search)," said demonstrator Pierre Paul, 35. "We will do the same thing that they are doing in Iraq."
It was the first large protest in favor of Aristide since the ousted president fled to Africa on Sunday as rebels prepared for a final push on Port-au-Prince and the United States and France pressed the former priest to bow out.
Rebel leader Guy Philippe said he was gathering signatures for a petition to re-establish the army, disbanded in 1995. Haitian armies have fomented 32 coups in the country's 200 years of independence.
U.S. Gen. James Hill of the Southern Command opposed the idea, saying "there is no need for a Haitian army."
He said earlier that U.S. Light Armored Vehicles were placed at the presidential palace to stop looting that had erupted in recent days and prevent opposition forces from taking over.
The Marines arrived the day Aristide left, followed by French and Chilean troops, forming the vanguard of a U.N.-sponsored peacekeeping force expected to number about 5,000. Canada said it is sending 450 soldiers within days.
The Marines so far have met no resistance, though there has been none of the jubilation that accompanied their last intervention in Haiti -- in 1994, when 20,000 troops ousted a brutal military dictatorship, halted an exodus of boat people to Florida and restored Aristide to power.
A spokesman said U.S. troops had expanded their presence in Haiti beyond the capital and into rebel strongholds. Special Forces from the U.S. Southern Command in Florida arrived at rebel bases of Cap-Haitien, on Haiti's north coast; the western city of Gonaives; and possibly other locations across the country, said Army Maj. Richard Crusan, spokesman for the interim international force.
The teams are in addition to the 1,100 Marines in Port-au-Prince, Crusan said.
Witnesses in Cap-Haitien said police were disarming rebels who took that city on Feb. 22.
Radio Metropole said there has been some resistance to disarming, particularly in Gonaives, but no fighting was reported.
Philippe said he had spoken Friday to rebel commanders in Gonaives about the need to lay down their arms.
"At the beginning, they didn't understand it, but I talked to them and explained it," he said. "It's OK, we have no problems."
His adviser, Paul Arcelin, told The Associated Press earlier that rebels would keep their weapons as long as Aristide militants were armed because "tomorrow they'll come here and kill us."
Asked where the rebel guns were, he said: "We hide them."
Philippe, apparently under pressure from Washington, has promised that his fighters would disarm. But no plan have been announced for the rebels to hand in their weapons, which Philippe said were at their bases around the country.
Resistance to disarming is expected to be strongest in Gonaives, where a rebel movement on Feb. 5 sparked the uprising that led to Aristide's flight. Aristide claims he was abducted at gunpoint by U.S. Marines, charges the Bush administration strongly denies.
The ousted president's lawyer Gilbert Collard of Paris, meanwhile, said Aristide "told me he did not resign."
Collard told France-Soir newspaper that Aristide acknowledged writing "a note indicating that if his departure prevented a bloodbath, he would leave." But Collard said that the ex-leader also said that "if he had to resign, he would have done it according to the constitution and not with the push of a foreign power."
On the political front, the seven-member Council of Sages is expected to name a new prime minister within days, the Organization of American States said. The council was chosen by members of Aristide's Lavalas Family party, the broad-based opposition Democratic Platform coalition, and the international community, said OAS spokesman Edward Alexander.
The council met for several hours behind closed doors, ending its first session without a decision.
Opposition leaders have been pressing for the replacement of Yvon Neptune, Aristide's premier.
One possible choice is Lt. Gen. Herard Abraham, who succeeded Gen. Prosper Avril when he was ousted in a palace coup in 1990. Abraham immediately surrendered power to Haiti's Supreme Court justice -- probably the only Haitian army officer ever to voluntarily hand power to a civilian. That allowed the transition that led to Haiti's first free elections in December 1990, which Aristide won in a landslide.
A semblance of normality returned Friday to Port-au-Prince's La Saline neighborhood, a seaside slum and Aristide stronghold, after the Marines' first tentative patrols there.
"Today is the first time we have opened since the crisis began," auto repair shop manager Loubens Seintil said.
Aristide lost popularity in recent years as he failed to improve life for Haiti's poor while his aides lived lavish lifestyles that some allege were fueled by drug trafficking. As opposition grew, Aristide used police and militant loyalists to attack his opponents.
Aristide denies those charges and said the violence came from the opposition.