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IS HAITI ARMY ON VERGE OF BUCKLING?

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Although Haiti's army has outwardly responded with nothing but defiance to international sanctions aimed at driving it from power, Haitians familiar with the military's workings say it now may be close to buckling.

In recent days, a ban on commercial air traffic has halted all but a handful of flights here, and Washington has frozen most financial transactions involving Haitians and U.S. banks. In response, Haitian soldiers have stepped up their urban patrols, built sandbag barricades in downtown streets and acted to sharply restrict the movements of foreign journalists.But for all of the bluster emanating from Haiti's military leaders, who have refused to bow to foreign pressure to allow the return of the elected president, the Rev. Jean-Bertrand Aristide, Haitians with long ties to the army describe a pattern of rising dissent within the officer corps.

The first sign came this month when the brother of the country's powerful military police chief, Lt. Col. Joseph Michel Francois, issued a call from the neighboring Dominican Republic, where he lives, urging the army commander, Lt. Gen. Raoul Cedras, to resign.

The next day, Francois, who is widely thought to have led the coup that toppled Aristide in September 1991, issued an ambiguous statement distancing himself from but not totally repudiating his brother's remarks.

Since then, Haitian businessmen with extensive army contacts say, Francois has been holding private meetings with key officers throughout the military in an effort to force Cedras to step aside to make way for a political settlement. With sanctions squeezing Haiti's leadership and the United States' keeping the option of armed intervention, diplomats say, Francois is eager to strike a deal that would preserve a role for himself in Haiti.

Last week, said the businessmen, whose account was largely confirmed by diplomats, Francois brought together nine army commanders, most of them colonels and majors whom he knew were sympathetic to his view that Cedras should surrender his command. After a long discussion the nine were dispatched as couriers to urge Cedras to step aside.

When they appeared before the army leader, only one officer, a Colonel Guerrier, could muster the courage to speak, one businessman said.

"Even if only one of them could find the words to talk, Cedras must now be questioning his security," the businessman said. "He knows the other eight men didn't come along simply to say hello, and he has got to be worrying about just how deeply this sentiment runs."

Haitian businessmen and diplomats say that shortly after the meeting at which Cedras was urged to resign, Francois was summoned to army headquarters, warned to stay out of politics and told that his job was to "control the streets."

In another sign of the tensions in the military, associates of Francois say that the police chief reported to army headquarters accompanied by four heavily armed bodyguards.