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a577: U.S. Special Forces guard Aristide (fwd)
Former U.S. Special Forces guard Aristide
BY JUAN O. TAMAYO
Fearing for his life after an apparent coup attempt in December, President Jean-Bertrand Aristide of Haiti has significantly expanded his team of bodyguards, most of them veterans of U.S. Special Forces, according to sources in Haiti and Washington.
One U.S. government official said the number of bodyguards grew from about 10 to about 60 men and estimated the total cost at $6 million to $9 million a year, a considerable sum for the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere.
Aristide's contract with the California-based Steele Foundation, a private executive protection firm despite its name, also calls for a ``weapons package'' for the guards worth just under $1 million, the official added.
The tightened security reflects the political crisis facing the controversial Aristide, toppled in a military coup in 1991, restored after a U.S. invasion in 1994 and then re-elected in 2000.
Ken Kurtz, a managing director of Steele, confirmed the firm provides Aristide's ``presidential protection unit,'' but declined to comment on the reports that it has expanded or any other ``operational questions.''
``The government of Haiti, like any government after a violent incident such as happened [in December], would be interested in improving security,'' Kurtz said on the phone from San Francisco.
DEC. 17 ATTACK
On Dec. 17, two dozen heavily armed men attacked the National Palace in Port-au-Prince, killing two policemen and two passersby in an apparent coup attempt allegedly led by a former army colonel and two former police officials. Aristide was not in the palace at the time.
The president's opponents charged the attack was staged by the government to justify the mob violence against critics that followed, which left four more dead, but offered no evidence to support their claims.
Since then, Aristide is regularly escorted by a helicopter carrying bodyguards and a caravan of vehicles that includes a truck mounted with a machine gun, which was used by the attackers in the assault on the palace, Haiti residents said.
``There has been a significant increase in the security, from 10 to 60 bodyguards and a lot more heavy weaponry,'' said the U.S. official, an expert on security issues who declined to be identified.
The bodyguards are mostly veterans of U.S. Special Forces -- SEALs, Delta Force, Army Rangers and Marine reconnaissance units -- but include a handful of non-Americans, the U.S. official said.
Kurtz, a former Los Angeles police department official who joined Steele in 1997, has described the Haiti operation in public speeches as that country's first-ever ``privatized presidential unit.''
CONTRACT FOR YEARS
Kurtz said the Steele Foundation has had an ``executive protection'' contract with the Haitian government ``for years'' but declined to comment on the specifics.
Another firm offering high-level bodyguard services said it would normally charge $100,000 to $150,000 per man per year on a foreign assignment, more if the job is considered risky.
Most of Haiti's political violence in recent months has come from Aristide supporters attacking what they see as a disloyal opposition blocking the work of the former priest.
The Organization of American States voted earlier this month to send a permanent mission to Haiti to ensure the country's stability and called for an independent investigation of the Dec. 17 attack.