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Official: Haiti to restore army despite resistance

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PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — President Michel Martelly is going forward with a plan to restore his country's disbanded army even though diplomats have told him that their countries would not fund the project, a senior government official told The Associated Press.

Martelly recently met with diplomats, including representatives of the U.S., European Union and Brazil, who suggested shoring up the national police rather than devoting resources into an army, given its long history of human rights abuses. Martelly was not persuaded, the official told The Associated Press.

The president was somewhat dismissive when told by the diplomats that the international community would not pay for the new army. 'He said 'Who asked you to pay for my army?," according to the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the meeting in public.

The president plans to issue a decree on Nov. 18 that will reinstate the army under the command of a former colonel and will ask hundreds of former soldiers to reapply, the official said.

The force will initially total about 500 troops intended to guard the borders, help fight drug trafficking, protect the country's few remaining forests from illegal timber harvesting and help in natural disasters, the official said. It will take shape in June.

"We are going to act surely and slowly," the official told AP. "We aren't going to do anything in a hurry."

Martelly, whose government relies on international aid to fund most of its activities, said at the meeting he said he would find a way to raise the money for the military.

Both Martelly and his opponent in this year's runoff election had pledged to restore Haiti's military, an idea that resonates with many Haitians who see such a force as a source of national pride, potential jobs and a way to keep order in a chaotic country. Some also see it as a replacement to the nearly 13,000 U.N. peacekeepers who were brought to the country following the ouster of former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 2004.

But it is also an idea that frightens many people inside and outside of Haiti, where the army frequently inserted itself into politics and became a tool of repression.

Aristide disbanded the army in 1995, after he had been ousted in a military coup in 1991 and then restored to power three years later with the help of the U.S. Former members of the military and political opponents assert that his decree was not valid because it violated the constitution.

Martelly's administration said in a report sent to various embassies that it would need $95 million to launch its new military force.

The new plan, presented last month at the National Palace, carries a more modest, $25-million price tag. Martelly issued a statement on Saturday calling it a "new public security force."

The government plans to fund the project by taking money from other government ministries. The army will be run by the Interior Ministry, the official said.

Each department will be required to pay between 1 to 5 percent of its budget, the official said. Inevitably, the bulk of that money will come from outside sources, which make up between 60 and 70 percent of Haiti's $2 billion budget.

Martelly is scheduled to announce the decree Nov. 18, a national holiday marking the last major fight between Haitian and French forces before Haiti secured its independence in 1804. He is expected to tell hundreds of former soldiers and their followers to stay calm.

In recent months, bands of ex-soldiers have been training camouflage-clad would-be recruits in the capital and countryside with the hopes of reenlisting or securing a job, raising concerns among international officials that they could be used as private militias.

On Tuesday, Samson Chery, a former sergeant who has led several dozen soldiers in the hills above Port-au-Prince in weekly training exercises, met with government officials along with his colleagues.

He said Friday by telephone that he looked forward to the army's official return.

"The minute the decree comes out we will wait for orders," Chery said. "And we will march."

Their eagerness to enlist, however, is of concern to Martelly, said the government official.

"This horrifies Martelly and he doesn't condone this," said the government official.