(IPS) -- Washington is poised to start shipping 20,000 M-16 rifles to the Dominican Republic, the nation that shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti, where well-armed rebels helped to force President Jean-Bertrand Aristide from power Feb. 29.
Experts predict the new guns could cross the poorly guarded border between the countries, but the U.S. State Department says the agreement with the government in Santo Domingo prevents any transfer of weapons from the military.
The news comes just days after the commander of the U.S. Marines in Haiti apparently reversed a previous U.S. decision that troops in the multinational force would seek to disarm rebels and other groups in the country, which is awash in small arms.
On Saturday, interim Prime Minister Gerard Latortue watched as rebel leaders in the town of Gonaives surrendered about 10 decrepit-looking guns as a show of "goodwill." He said the loose-knit group -- whose members include convicted murderers and other known and suspected human rights violators -- would disarm when the time was right.
Washington intends to ship the first group of 2,000-3,000 surplus M-16s within 90 days, a spokesman from the Pentagon's Defense Security Cooperation Agency confirmed Wednesday.
The deal was made in 2002 and Congress was informed of it, he added.
A State Department spokesman told IPS that checks are in place to prevent the weapons from getting into criminals' hands.
"If you're hinting that these are going to Haitian rebels, that's not the case. We specifically say that these are for the use of the Dominican Armed Forces and if you use them for anything else, you have to ask us first," added the spokesman, who requested anonymity.
"We're not in a position to make a 100 percent guarantee, but certainly the conditions under which we have agreed to transfer these weapons are that they are for the use of the Dominican Republic's Armed Forces and are not to be transferred. We do checks from time to time to make sure that's the case."
One expert says she is not sure where the thousands of guns now in Haiti came from, but that many probably entered via the Dominican Republic.
"It's pretty clear that a lot of those weapons are remnants from 1994 and have remained, not underground necessarily, but not as visible and destabilising. But I'm sure there are new weapons being brought in," said Rachel Stohl, a senior analyst at the Centre for Defense Information in Washington.
"It's unclear to me how compliant the government or military is in that, but I think there's pretty good evidence that the weapons are flowing (across the border). It's a very weak border. Because other goods and services can move across that border relatively easily, there's no reason to think that guns wouldn't be able to as well," she added in an interview.
Washington led a military force into Haiti in 1994 to restore Aristide to power after a coup and a brutal three-year military regime. The former Catholic priest and champion of the country's poor was elected for a second time in 2000, but following Senate elections that some international bodies called "flawed," the political opposition refused to negotiate with him.
Earlier this year rebel leaders, who include former members of the Haitian army that Aristide disbanded after returning to power, as well as former police, took advantage of the political deadlock to cross into Haiti from the Dominican Republic. They terrorised towns in the northern part of the country, killing members of the country's small, poorly armed police force.
On Feb. 29, as rebels neared the capital Port-au-Prince, Aristide left on a U.S. jet. Now visiting in nearby Jamaica, the president says he was kidnapped in a U.S. and French-inspired plot, while those governments say he resigned to avoid further bloodshed. Roughly 200 people died in the violence preceding Aristide's ouster.
Days after the president's flight, rebel leader Guy Philippe, a former police chief of Delmas and Cap-Haitien who fled to the Dominican Republic after an aborted coup against Aristide in 2000, declared himself the country's new military chief.
U.S. officials swiftly rebuked Philippe, and declared the rebels would be disarmed and excluded from the political process.
On Mar. 2, State Department Spokesman Richard Boucher told journalists, "The rebels have to lay down their arms and go home." Two days later, Philippe publicly agreed, a decision that U.S. ambassador James Foley took credit for. "We've made it unmistakably clear what has to happen," he told CNN. "The result is inevitable."
But on Sunday, the U.S. head of the United Nations-approved multinational force of about 3,000 soldiers told Reuters, "This is a country with a lot of weapons and disarmament is not our mission. Our mission is to stabilise the country."
"It seems there's been a flip," Jocelyn McCalla, executive director of the New York-based National Coalition for Haitian Rights, told IPS.
Previously, "the U.S. military commander was fortunately saying they were going to disarm, they were going to aggressively disarm people, they were not going to tolerate thugs running around ... and now they've switched sides and basically are saying 'we're not going to do any disarming'."
"And they make a very (fine) distinction between political stability and disarming. In my opinion," added McCalla, "you can't have political stability unless you disarm these guys."
He said the new strategy "questions the policy that Foley, (Secretary of State Colin) Powell and everyone else has over this issue. It also raises the question, what in fact is the UN going to be doing in Haiti?"
UN peacekeepers are scheduled to take over from the multinational force by May 29.
McCalla said the rebels have not slunk into the shadows waiting for UN troops to arrive, as some people predicted they would. "They're there for everybody to see; they are not going to relinquish power; they are exercising power ... they told the prime minister on Saturday, 'listen if you don't do it (our) way, we'll kick you out.'"
Stohl, who raised the issue of the M-16 shipment in an article published Tuesday, said the powers now dominating Haiti risk repeating mistakes made after Aristide's restoration.
"You really can't have a stable Haiti or security for its people if you don't disarm the country ... there has to be some kind of disarmament of the rebel groups, the criminal gangs, those who are exploiting this opportunity to terrorise the Haitian population."
"People, as long as they don't feel secure, are going to want to hold onto their guns. That's what happened in 1994 -- there was no buy-in to the political and democratic environment. As a result, people turned in (weapons) that were completely unusable and then went out and bought better ones," she added.
Stohl believes Washington should at least delay shipping the M-16s to the Dominican Republic. The State Department disagrees. "We have seen no indications that weapons provided by the U.S. government are making their way across the border," said its spokesman.
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