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Haiti took a hesitant step toward democracy Wednesday when Parliament, shuttered for months, reopened to debate a proposed amnesty for the army officers who overthrew President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

Eleven exiled Haitian lawmakers arrived in Port-au-Prince from Miami to attend the session. Before they left, several said they opposed granting the military rulers amnesty but would go along with the move in order to restore the elected government.Amnesty for the bloody coup and the brutal human rights abuses that followed was part of the last-minute deal between the junta that seized power three years ago and an American delegation led by former President Jimmy Carter. The Sept. 18 deal forestalled a U.S. invasion.

"Personally I think amnesty is an immoral act," Fritz Robert St. Paul, an exiled deputy, said before departing from Miami International Airport. "But one of the conditions of the return of President Aristide is the amnesty. So we're going to do the sacrifice."

St. Paul and the 10 other returning legislators fled Haiti after the 1991 coup that ousted Aristide. They had been living in self-imposed exile in the United States and Canada.

American troops provided security for the returning deputies and senators and at Wednesday's parliamentary session. But the dominating foreign military presence is a sensitive issue in Haiti, a nation proud of being the first black republic. Some lawmakers threatened to resign or not to show up if U.S. troops are posted inside the building.

"There will be no foreign soldiers within the parliament building," said Frantz-Robert Monde, president of the 82-member Chamber of Deputies. "The security they will give to legislators will be on the outside of the building."

Sen. Thomas Eddy Dupiton, who does not plan to attend Wednesday's parliamentary session, called the U.S. occupation of Haiti's political institutions a "provocation."

"I once admired the bald eagle for its grace," he said. "Now I am struck by its rapacity. They came to reinforce our institutions. Now they are tolling their death."

Eleven other senators who were elected during military rule will be barred from the session.

Other legislation on Wednesday's agenda includes the separation of the police from the armed forces, its reorganization and retraining, and putting the police under civilian command.

American diplomats met Tuesday with Monde and Senate president Firmin Jean-Louis to iron out difficulties. Meanwhile, U.S. military police strung concertina wire outside the white, colonnaded parliament building.

The Americans also positioned army Humvee jeeps with machine guns mounted on top at nearby City Hall in anticipation of Mayor Evans Paul's return Thursday after three years in hiding.

From exile in the United States, Aristide appeared on television Tuesday night and urged Haitians to move peacefully toward democracy.

"Since last week, I have seen how happy you are to welcome the American soldiers," he said on the U.S. military-run Tele Demokrasi. "I, too, am happy to see how they are helping us establish security for all without distinction."

The United States announced Tuesday that troop strength in Haiti had risen to 18,262, and U.S. officials said they would not speculate on how high the number would go.


Additional Information

U.S. soldier found dead in apparent suicide

U.S. forces suffered their first fatality Tuesday when a soldier was found shot to death while his unit was securing a government-owned villa in Port-au-Prince. "It appears to have been a self-inflicted wound and not the result of a sniper," U.S. military spokesman Col. Barry Willey told reporters late Tuesday. He said it was unclear whether the shooting was an accident or a suicide. In Washington, a defense official said the soldier, assigned to the 10th Mountain Division based at Fort Drum, N.Y., had apparently been distressed over a marital problem. He was not identified.