PORT-AU-PRINCE, (Reuters) – A Haitian government panel has urged the president to appoint an interim commander to take charge of former soldiers, a panel member said on Saturday, as the leader of a successful 2004 uprising warned that ex-members of the military could seize power.
Several thousand former members of the military that was disbanded in 1995 by then-President Jean-Bertrand Aristide after a series of coups, have occupied government buildings and former army camps, defying injunctions from the government to leave.
They are often seen armed and in military uniforms in the streets and sometimes even directing traffic, fueling concerns of instability in a nation still struggling to recover from a catastrophic 2010 earthquake.
A panel appointed by President Michel Martelly to study reviving the military recommended in a report that he appoint a provisional army high command to deal with thousands of former soldiers and young, armed volunteers who want the army restored, said George Michel, a well-known doctor and historian who is on the panel.
The report was submitted in late December but has not been made public.
“If there is a high command, all those who claim they are part of the military will have to comply with orders from their superiors,” said Michel, who estimated the number of former soldiers and recruits at 15,000 and growing.
“Otherwise, even from their own point of view, they would not be able to continue to claim that they are members of the army.”
More than two dozen of those former soldiers and new recruits, many armed and some in combat positions, accompanied Guy Philippe, who led the rebellion that toppled Aristide in 2004 and forced him into exile, as he gave a live interview on Radio Caraibes, Haiti’s most popular station.
Aristide returned to Haiti a year ago.
“The warning I could send is that before long those groups will reach 30,000 men and any general that could emerge as their leader could take over power,” Philippe told Reuters after the interview.
He urged Martelly to accept the commission’s recommendations and appoint an interim high commander to take charge of them.
“They have weapons, they are trained and if they become a loose army, no one will be able to control them,” Philippe said.
Martelly supports the idea of reconstituting the army but has called on the ex-soldiers to put down their weapons and vacate the camps until the government makes a decision.
He has said Haitians would prefer to have their country protected by its own army rather than United Nations troops who have acted as peacekeepers in the impoverished Caribbean nation on and off since 1994.
U.N. officials are concerned that restoring the army could undermine international efforts to train and equip a new civilian police force, a key goal of the U.N. mission in Haiti. Critics also point to the army’s appalling human rights record, including a bloody coup in 1991.
The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has tried several times to arrest Philippe on drug trafficking charges.
The U.S. agency launched two failed raids in 2007 and 2009 – one in the southern city of Les Cayes and the other in the southwestern town of Pestel – using helicopters and other means to try to capture Philippe. He went into hiding, but still has made occasional surprise appearances in public.
Philippe’s appearance at the radio station marked the first time his presence was announced in advance. On Thursday in the northern town of Cap-Haitien, he participated in a march organized by former soldiers to request the return of the army.
“DEA has no authority to arrest anyone in Haiti. The law says who can arrest who in Haiti. I am no drug dealer. They are only making a plot to assassinate me,” Philippe said.
He was cheered by dozens of spectators as he left the radio station and was escorted to his vehicle by former soldiers. Philippe said he would spend the night in the Lamentin Camp, a former military training camp in the capital that is now occupied by several thousand ex-soldiers and their allies.