MARIANI, Haiti (AP) — The leaders of a small group of ex-soldiers who embarrassed Haiti's government earlier this year by seizing old military bases to press for the restoration of the disbanded army emerged from six months of hiding Saturday to renew their demand.
Contacted on their cellphones after several months of keeping them off, four former sergeants arranged to meet with The Associated Press on a hillside clearing in Mariani, a beach resort town southwest of the Caribbean nation's capital.
They said the group's members have been training at the site.
The meeting came a day after Haiti's Ministry of Defense issued a statement warning the group not to cause disruptions.
The ex-soldiers said they planned to press their campaign without violence.
"They know we can tear down the country — easily," said one of the former sergeants, David Dorme, 44. "But if we destroyed this country where are we going to go?"
The National Armed Forces of Haiti was abolished in 1995 because of its history of toppling governments and crushing dissent.
Many veterans have long complained that they're owed $15 million in pensions and lost wages. The current administration began registering veterans in April for back pay and pensions and says it has made some payments.
After police took back the illegally occupied old bases in May, leaders of the ragtag group of former soldiers and their young recruits stashed their camouflage uniforms and pistols and returned to their day jobs.
The ex-sergeants said they spent the time reorganizing and preparing to renew their campaign to demand that President Michel Martelly's government honor his campaign pledge to re-establish the military and appoint one of them as commander.
"Today we want the army to remobilize, to speak in the ears of the leaders," said one of the sergeants, Jean-Fednel Lafalaise, 45.
Jean Venel Casseus, a spokesman for the Ministry of Defense, referred AP to the public warning telling people "pretending" to former soldiers not to disrupt public order.
"This note went out on the radio so everyone heard it," Casseus said by telephone. "They can't go out with their uniforms and weapons until the government establishes that the army has been reinstated."
Asked what the authorities would do if the band of ex-soldiers ventured into the streets, Casseus said: "If the government needs to take action it will."
Despite its parades and base takeovers, the pro-army group never really posed a serious threat to the government or the United Nations peacekeeping mission, which it accused of being an occupying force.
Still, the group's parading around Port-au-Prince and the countryside wearing mismatching, ill-fitting uniforms while carrying pistols did embarrass the U.N. mission and the government, which is trying to lure foreign investors.
The armed marches made both institutions look weak and ineffective, raising questions about whether Haiti might be returning to its paramilitary past.
For several months, the pro-army group defied warnings to leave several old army bases and to stop posing as military personnel. Then in May, police cleared out the bases and locked up 50 demonstrators following a pro-army demonstration that passed in front of the National Palace.
The group's leaders shut off their cellphones and largely vanished.
Lafalaise denied that he and colleagues went into hiding, saying they were just keeping a low profile.
"The military's not hiding or running away," he said. "We've just retreated."
The former sergeants, one of whom had a pistol sticking out of a pants pocket, said they had held meetings and secured the hillside clearing that affords a broad view of the ocean. They said they have been using the land as a training ground twice a week.
A white dome tent was described as the group's office. The red-and-blue Haitian flag hung on a pole tied to a barren tree. Yellow butterflies fluttered among the bushes.
The ex-sergeants said they held a low-key ceremony on Nov. 18 to mark a military-themed holiday associated with Haiti's fight for independence from France. That day, rumors circulated that the group would march in the nearby city of Carrefour, but it didn't.
Police arrested about 30 pro-army men at an old military base north of the capital Thursday after they tried to seize it, Dorme said.
A newspaper reported the raid turned up homemade weapons, uniforms and radio communication. A police spokesman declined to comment on the report.
Associated Press writer Evens Sanon contributed to this report.