- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 9, 2004

The United States had understood that former Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide had secured refuge in South Africa and did not wait for Pretoria’s formal consent to accept him before a U.S. plane took off from Port-au-Prince with Mr. Aristide on board on Feb. 29, U.S. officials said yesterday.

The former president, who has been in exile in the Central African Republic for eight days, called on his supporters yesterday to resist peacefully Haiti’s “occupation,” a day after at least five Haitians and a foreign journalist were killed in a massive demonstration in the capital celebrating his departure.

On the day that Mr. Aristide left the country, Washington, which had contacted the South African administrative capital, Pretoria, while he still was on the ground, was certain that the response from the government of President Thabo Mbeki, a strong supporter of the former Haitian leader, would be positive.

“We took off with the understanding that South Africa would accept him,” one U.S. official said. “But there was no confirmation from the South African government that they were willing to take him.”

Asked whether Mr. Aristide said that he had made arrangements with Pretoria himself, the official said Mr. Aristide was not specific.

“He did say that his final destination of choice was South Africa, and we had the impression that South Africa would say yes,” the official said.

“But 15-20 minutes into the flight, word was received that South Africa said no,” he added.

The United States then began looking for any country that would take Mr. Aristide, and Secretary of State Colin L. Powell managed to persuade the Central African Republic to give him at least temporary refuge, U.S. officials said.

“Aristide did want to go to South Africa, but they said they were not in a position to accept him right away,” a senior State Department official said. “What happens from now on is something between him and South Africa.”

Mr. Mbeki’s government has been reluctant to accept Mr. Aristide before elections on April 14 and has been vague about what might happen after the vote.

But another State Department official said the United States is “working with the assumption that South Africa will take him once the elections are over.”

In his first public appearance since he arrived in Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic, Mr. Aristide continued to reject Washington’s claim that he had resigned and insisted that he had been a victim of a “political abduction.”

“This unfortunately has paved the way for occupation, and we launch an appeal for peaceful resistance,” he said at a press conference. “I’m choosing my words carefully — for a peaceful resistance.”

Mr. Aristide yesterday had told The Washington Times through French writer and Haiti expert Claude Ribbe that he still considered himself the rightful leader of the half-island nation.

The White House again reprimanded him for insisting he is still the president of his Caribbean nation and warned him against divisive provocations.

“Mr. Aristide has resigned his office and has left the country. And now the Haitian people are involved with grasping democracy and moving forward on an interim government,” White House spokesman Trent Duffy told reporters.

“And any comments that would stir up more division are not helpful, as the Haitian people move toward a greater democracy.”

Mr. Aristide has said the letter he signed before his departure was not a “formal resignation” and he plans to return to his country soon.

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher, asked yesterday whether Mr. Aristide has freedom of movement, said:

“He is free to leave for any country that would grant him entry. And in terms of where he stands now, as far as asylum goes, free to go to any country that might grant his asylum request. Those are decisions that would be made by the individual countries that we wouldn’t be involved in.”

As he pointed out that Haiti’s constitution does not allow Mr. Aristide to run for president again, Mr. Boucher said, “whether he has any political role or any particular role in Haiti, that would be something for Haitians down the road, as they choose their own government, for them to decide.”

At the National Palace in Port-au-Prince yesterday, former Chief Justice Boniface Alexandre, wearing a blue, yellow and red sash, formally was installed as the new president behind closed doors under heavy guard by foreign troops.

“We are all brothers and sisters,” said Mr. Alexandre, who has served as president for a week. “We are all in the same boat, and if it sinks, it sinks with all of us.”

U.S. Marines acknowledged that they killed one Haitian at Sunday’s demonstration. “He had a gun, and he was shooting at Marines,” Col. Charles Gurganus told reporters.

A U.N. assessment team was scheduled to arrive today to begin work on rebuilding Haiti.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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