Haitian rebels say they will be in the capital within days and Washington has sent marines to protect its embassy after Haiti's second-largest city fell in a bloody armed revolt.
Rebel leaders said after seizing control of the northern city of Cap Haitien on Sunday they were ready to take the entire country and liberate it from President Jean-Bertrand Aristide's "slavery".
"We will be in Port-au-Prince in a few days," rebel leader Guy Philippe said on local radio.
About 50 US marines flew in on two C-130 Hercules transport planes to Port-au-Prince airport on a mission to protect the US embassy and other US facilities in Haiti.
The marines, who appeared on edge, drove in a column of some 15 SUVs and three supply trucks to the embassy.
France, which ruled Haiti until 1804, joined several other foreign governments in telling its citizens to leave. The international airport was packed with people, including US missionaries, clamoring for flights out in stifling heat.
Plea for help
Aristide's government said it was sending reinforcements north and repeated a plea for international help for its hopelessly outgunned police. About 60 people have died in the revolt that erupted on 5 February in the poorest country in the Americas.
Seizing their biggest prize so far, a ski-mask-clad rebel force of 200 on Sunday overran Cap Haitien, a city of about 500,000, putting anti-Aristide forces in control of much of the north.
At least 10 people were killed during the attack, including several rebels, government spokesman Mario Dupuy said.
Looters struck in Cap Haitien after the rebel advance. A mob hit a World Food Programme warehouse on the outskirts of the city, taking about 800 tons of food valued at nearly $740,000.
"We will liberate Haiti from the slavery of Aristide. So far, the only resistance we've encountered has been with machetes"
Louis Jodel Chamblain,
Other parts of the city appeared calm a day after the rebels struck. Cows ambled by the side of the runway at the airport and people on bicycles went about their business.
Joking and relaxed, a rebel leader said his comrades would soon take over the rest of the country.
"We will liberate Haiti from the slavery of Aristide," said Louis Jodel Chamblain. "So far, the only resistance we've encountered has been with machetes," Chamblain told Reuters at the city's airport.
Fears in capital
Chamblain, a former leader of a militia that terrorised Haitians in the early 1990s, was surrounded by about 50 rebel
fighters dressed in military fatigues; some were armed with
automatic rifles. The rebels wore riot gear and dark glasses with gas masks tied to their belts.
The relative ease with which the rebels took Cap Haitien heightened fears in the capital, where Aristide still has plenty of supporters.
On Monday night, barricades bellowing flames from burning wood appeared on some main roads in the wealthy parts of the capital, apparently set up by pro-Aristide supporters to deter rebels. Police on patrols appeared nervous.
Prime Minister Yvon Neptune repeated a government plea to foreign nations to send help for the Haitian National Police, a poorly trained group of perhaps 4000 officers created in the mid-1990s when Aristide disbanded the feared army.
"The national police is not an army and cannot make a war against terrorists"
"The national police is not an army and cannot make a war against terrorists," Neptune told a news conference.
The assault on Cap Haitien came as opposition parties, which want Aristide gone but have distanced themselves from the rebels, were under pressure from foreign mediators to decide whether to accept a power-sharing deal that would leave the president in office.
Opposition leaders said US Secretary of State Colin Powell extended a Monday deadline for a decision by 24 hours, even though the opposition showed no sign of changing demands that Aristide quit.
If the opposition did agree to a deal, it was far from clear it would halt rebels, who pose a more serious threat to Aristide.
Aristide championed Haitian democracy in the 1980s and became its first freely elected leader in 1991, but is now accused of corruption and political thuggery by his opponents.
He has vowed to stay on until his second term ends in 2006.