The Bush administration blocked a last-minute attempt by Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide to bolster his bodyguards -- mostly former U.S. Special Forces members -- fearing he wanted them to organize and lead a counterattack against the rebels who threatened his presidency, knowledgeable sources said Sunday.
U.S. officials also forced a small group of extra bodyguards from the San Francisco-based Steele Foundation to delay their flight from the United States to Haiti from Sunday to today -- too late to help Aristide, said the sources, who are close to Aristide.
The Steele Foundation, which despite its name is a private executive-protection firm, has long held the contract, approved by the U.S. State Department, to provide Aristide's personal security detail. Most of them are veterans of the Special Forces and the State Department's VIP protection service.
Calls to the Steele Foundation Sunday went unanswered, and State Department officials declined to comment.
Aristide's Steele guard rose from about 10 to about 60 in 2000 after an apparent coup attempt the previous December, according to Herald reports.
But it had dropped to around 20 to 25 as of recent weeks, the sources indicated.
The sources said that after the Haitian government had recently contacted Steele to provide a large group of extra bodyguards, U.S. Embassy officials in the Haitian capital contacted Steele representatives and warned them off.
Reports floating around the capital in recent weeks had Aristide asking Steele to help professionalize his security forces.
Other reports indicated he wanted them to organize and command a counterattack against the rebels.
Haiti's National Police -- a force of 6,000 that had shrunk to 4,000 -- virtually evaporated in the face of a rebel force estimated at a few hundred since the uprising against the president began Feb. 5. Aristide abolished the army in 1995.
''The embassy took it as if the Steele guys were going to go after these guys,'' said one source, who would not confirm whether Aristide had indeed intended to have the new bodyguards prepare his forces for a counterattack.
The smaller group of bodyguards that was scheduled to go Sunday ''was just additional protection, not a number large enough to go after these guys,'' the source added.
Most of the Steele Foundation's contracts to protect foreign dignitaries -- it also provides security for Afghan President Hamid Karzai -- must be approved, officially or indirectly, by the U.S. government.
Government officials in Haiti and Washington told The Herald in early 2002 that Aristide was paying $6 million to $9 million a year for the 60 or so bodyguards, a considerable sum for the hemisphere's poorest nation.
The contract also called for a ''weapons package'' for the guards worth just under $1 million, one of the officials said at the time.
Ken Kurtz, a managing director of Steele, confirmed that his firm provides Aristide's ''presidential protection unit,'' but declined to comment on the reports that it had been expanded or any other ``operational questions.''
Aristide's reliance on foreign bodyguards reflected the political crisis facing the controversial president, toppled in a military coup in 1991, restored after a U.S. invasion in 1994 and then reelected in 2000. ''The government of Haiti, like any government after a violent incident such as happened, would be interested in improving security,'' Kurtz told The Herald.
2001 PALACE ATTACK
On Dec. 17, 2001, two dozen heavily armed men had attacked the National Palace in Port-au-Prince, killing two policemen and two passersby.
The apparent coup attempt allegedly was led by Guy Philippe, a former police commissioner in northern Haiti.
Aristide was not in the palace at the time.
Philippe escaped into exile in the neighboring Dominican Republic, but returned last month at the head of the Haitian Liberation Front, a rebel group of some 50 to 60 former soldiers who captured Haiti's second-largest city, Cap Haitien, last Sunday.