- The Washington Times - Friday, February 13, 2004

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell yesterday demanded that Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide deliver on promises to end the country’s violent political standoff.

Mr. Powell also said the United States strongly opposes any coup, but that the United States has no plans for military intervention.

“There is no plan, and we discussed no plan here, for military or other kinds of intervention,” Mr. Powell said at a hastily convened gathering of foreign ministers from Canada and more than a dozen Caribbean nations.

Mr. Powell and other members of the group left hanging what action they would take to maintain Mr. Aristide in power if the rebellion expands.

“We will accept no outcome that in any way illegally attempts to remove the elected president of Haiti,” said Mr. Powell.

The impoverished nation of 8.3 million has seen months of protests explode into an armed rebellion in the past week, with anti-Aristide rebels seizing at least eight towns and about 50 people being killed.

Aristide opponents accuse the president of rigging legislative elections in 2000 to ensure his party’s victory.

Civic opposition groups, which include many former supporters of Mr. Aristide, have attempted to distance themselves from the violent anti-Aristide forces who have come to the fore in recent days.

Mr. Aristide, a former Roman Catholic priest who once enjoyed strong U.S. support, has dubbed the opposition “terrorists,” accusing the civic groups of colluding with armed rebels against him.

While ruling out a forced ouster of Mr. Aristide, Mr. Powell and the other officials made clear the president is under pressure to compromise.

“What we need now from Aristide is action,” Mr. Powell said. Government-backed “thugs” cannot be allowed to break up opposition demonstrations, he warned.

A State Department official said it was too soon to speculate on what action the United States and Haiti’s neighbors would take in the event Mr. Aristide is deposed.

Jamaican Foreign Affairs Minister K.D. Knight, speaking for the 15-nation grouping known as the Caribbean Community, or Caricom, said both the Haitian government and the opposition must take measures to ease the political crisis, but also forcefully rejected any unconstitutional move to drive Mr. Aristide from power.

“We will not accept a coup d’etat in any form,” he said.

In Haiti, antigovernment rebels remained entrenched in a number of northern cities, a day after Aristide supporters crushed plans for an opposition demonstration in the capital of Port-au-Prince by setting up street barricades and pelting would-be marchers with rocks and sticks.

Violent rebel gangs are now in control of a number of key cities, including Gonaives and Cap-Haitien, Haiti’s second-largest city. Mr. Aristide remains in command in the capital.

Mr. Aristide, who became Haiti’s first democratically elected president only to be exiled to the United States in a coup, was restored to power by the U.S. military in 1994.

He stepped down in 1996, then was re-elected to a six-year term in 2,000.

The foreign ministers gathered in Washington yesterday said they were prepared to provide more financial and other support for an Organization of American States mission seeking to broker an end to Haiti’s political stalemate.

Several ministers said the gathering, with the United States, Canada, Caricom and the OAS represented, was designed to show all sides in Haiti that the hemisphere is united against the use of violence by either side in the dispute.

The ministers also said they were willing to help improve the professionalism of Haiti’s own police force and discussed the circumstances under which international police officers could be dispatched to the island nation.

Mr. Aristide disbanded the army and the government now relies on 5,000 poorly equipped police officers and militants loyal to Mr. Aristide’s ruling Lavalas Party.

Bahamas Foreign Affairs Minister Frederick Mitchell said Haiti’s Caribbean neighbors fear a humanitarian and refugee crisis for the region if events spiral out of control.

The U.S. government has reportedly been preparing reception centers at the Guantanamo Bay naval base in Cuba to handle the potential influx of Haitian refugees to the United States.

Officials of the International Red Cross in Geneva said in a statement that Haiti’s meager health network is already overburdened by the bloodshed to date.

“The hospitals in Port-au-Prince and other cities are receiving wounded people in urgent need of medical care,” the Geneva-based organization said. “Many medical facilities, however, are not functioning because staff fear for their own safety. The situation is also preventing sorely needed medical supplies from being delivered by humanitarian organizations.”

In an interview with Agence France-Presse, Haitian rebel commander Winter Etienne vowed yesterday to fight government or any international forces sent to subdue him.

If American troops try to help Mr. Aristide, “We would take down the Haitian flag here and raise the Cuban flag,” Mr. Etienne said.

This article was based in part on wire service reports.

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