U.S. State Department agents began 24-hour security duty at Haiti’s National Palace on Saturday to protect a president whose own guards are implicated in at least two assassinations.
Conspicuous in white photographers’ vests and wearing navy-blue baseball caps and T-shirts, the 40 agents checked into a Port-au-Prince hotel late Friday.
Streets leading to the palace were barricaded to block easy access.
U.S. Embassy spokeswoman Mary Ellen Gilroy said the American agents will provide support to Haitian guards, who remain responsible for protecting President Rene Preval. The U.S. agents “will assist in the reorganization” of the presidential security force, Gilroy said.
She declined to say whether they were sent in response to allegations that some of Preval’s 100 bodyguards were involved in killings and robberies.
Radio Metropole reported that Preval’s security was, for the moment, entirely in the hands of the Americans.
A foreign diplomat, who refused to be identified, gave a similar account. Haitian government officials could not be reached for comment.
The Clinton administration has budgeted $3 million for the security operation, which could last months.
Preval, who was inaugurated in February, inherited a palace guard loyal to his predecessor, Jean-Bertrand Aristide.
He has wanted to reorganize his security detail but feared for his own safety, a U.S. official said.
The top two officers in Preval’s security unit were dismissed last week.
Between eight and 12 members of the Haitian palace guard were implicated in the Aug. 20 assassinations of two members of the far-right Mobilization for National Development party.
On Tuesday, State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns said the allegations “require intense investigation.”
The Haitian government has created a panel for that purpose.
About $3 million in U.S. aid has been held up by Congress until the Haitian government can prove that there was no official involvement in assassinations that occurred during Aristide’s administration.
Another foreign diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that palace guards participated in an Aug. 5 armored car robbery that left at least four people dead in the north coast city of Cap-Haitien.
Two days earlier, security agents allegedly participated in assaults on motorists and pedestrians in plain view of the National Palace, the diplomat said. One person was killed and 12 were wounded in the assaults.
Several palace agents were arrested last month in connection with the armored car robbery, according to another diplomat.
One was implicated in the Aug. 20 assassinations, a source close to the security unit told The Associated Press on condition of anonymity.
A U.S.-led intervention in September 1994 ousted a military regime responsible for as many as 4,000 civilian deaths.
The intervention restored Aristide as Haiti’s elected president.
Aristide disbanded Haiti’s army, and U.S. troops handed over security duties to a U.N. peacekeeping force in 1995.
U.N. advisers are training a new civilian police force that has been unable to stop a recent wave of kidnappings, robberies and street shootings.