A key figure in the uprising against Haiti's Jean-Bertrand Aristide said his rebels would surrender their weapons as French troops entered this hotbed of insurrection ahead of a visit by the new prime minister.
Rebels planned to hand over guns during a public meeting with Prime Minister Gerard Latortue later yesterday in the north coast city of Gonaives, rebel leader Butteur Metayer said in an interview.
"We want to turn in all the guns we fought with," said Metayer, who declined to say if that meant they would keep other arms not used in the bloody uprising that forced out President Aristide.
A Gonaives street gang began the armed rebellion that ultimately helped oust Aristide, who fled Haiti on Feb. 29.
Aristide has said he was forced out by the US, which denies it did anything but help save the embattled leader's life by arranging a flight to the Central African Republic. Aristide has since flown to the nearby island of Jamaica to be with his wife and children.
Several police were killed in a Feb. 5 gunbattle when rebels evicted police and torched the Gonaives station and other buildings. An even bloodier battle raged two days later when 150 police tried to retake the city, but failed and lost about 30 officers.
"To make peace, the first thing we want to do is turn over our weapons. We are ready and willing," Metayer said, sipping a cold Prestige beer on the steps of his house, which was nearly destroyed in clashes with police.
Another Gonaives rebel leader, Winter Etienne, also said his followers would surrender their weapons.
Casually dressed in a blue polo shirt, denim shorts and black sandals, Metayer said he would get a licensed handgun for personal protection after handing over the weapons. He suggested other rebels might do the same.
Hours earlier, an armored convoy of about 150 French Legionnaires rolled into Gonaives, Latortue's hometown, and set up a base at Haiti's State University following a brief patrol of the city.
Another 200 French troops arrived in Cap-Haitien, the northern port of 500,000 that is Haiti's second largest city. There was no reported resistance.
Their mission was to establish control in rebel-held northern Haiti and allow relief organizations to deliver food and medicines disrupted during the rebellion.
"If they are here for peace, it will be a good thing," said Gonaives resident Chantal Romeus, 28, said as he sat on his bicycle watching French troops pass by. "The town will be back to normal with these guys here."
Metayer said he welcomed the French.
"From now on, the security of Gonaives will not be in my hands. We'll be able to get some rest and let the French do it," he said.
Men scraped black sludge from sewers and swept streets clean in preparation for Latortue's visit, his first since a new government was appointed this week. The trip was coordinated with French and American troops.
Rebels in both cities had previously said they would disarm only if pro-Aristide gunmen do the same -- raising questions about the feasibility of Haiti's disarmament campaign, which is being assisted by foreign troops.
Troops say they're helping a government with scant resources to disarm gangs. But rebels can be seen in the capital and other towns patrolling with assault weapons.