- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 25, 2004

President Bush yesterday vowed to turn back any Haitian refugees trying to reach American shores, but pledged that the United States will encourage the international community to provide a “security presence” in the rebel-torn nation as part of a political settlement.

“I have made it abundantly clear to the Coast Guard that we will turn back any refugee that attempts to reach our shore,” the president said in the Oval Office.

“That message needs to be very clear, as well, to the Haitian people. … And so we encourage, strongly encourage the Haitian people to stay home as we work to reach a peaceful solution to this problem,” he said.

“Incident to a political settlement, we will encourage the international community to provide a security presence,” Mr. Bush told reporters.

France’s foreign minister, Dominique de Villepin, went a step further, saying such a force should be established immediately so it can get to work quickly once a government of national unity is formed.

Mr. Bush spoke as foreigners hurried to escape the country, some with assistance from U.S. Marines, in the face of an expected rebel assault on the capital, Port-au-Prince.

Supporters of embattled President Jean-Bertrand Aristide set up burning barricades throughout the city and looters surged through the streets as any semblance of order broke down, according to wire service reports.

Several other countries joined the United States in calling for diplomatic or military action to resolve the crisis, with France issuing a strong statement blaming Mr. Aristide for the breakdown.

The U.N. Security Council was scheduled to meet on the subject today.

Mr. Bush said he and Secretary of State Colin L. Powell have “been in close consultations” and working to “achieve a political settlement between the current government and the rebels,” who already control the northern half of the country.

“We are watching the situation very carefully. The secretary of state has been in touch with Canadian officials and French officials and Caribbean officials, all aimed to convince the parties to come to the table and effect a peaceful solution.”

Mr. Bush pledged to work toward a “political solution” and ensured Haitians that the United States will have “a robust presence with an effective strategy.”

“We will encourage the international community to provide a security presence. And that is also being discussed right now,” he said.

White House spokesman Scott McClellan elaborated on the warning for Haitians not to take to the seas, saying, “It’s important that the Haitian people know that our migration policy is very clear and it remains the same. We are focused on bringing about a peaceful, political solution to the situation.”

The spokesman ruled out a U.S. military presence in Haiti like the one that restored Mr. Aristide to power in 1994, but said the United States was “prepared … to assist the international community in those efforts,” which could include a “police force.”

In Paris, Mr. de Villepin urged the “immediate” dispatch of an international civilian force to restore order in its former colony.

“As far as President Aristide is concerned, he bears grave responsibility for the current situation,” Mr. de Villepin said in a statement that stopped short of calling for Mr. Aristide’s resignation. “It’s his decision, it’s his responsibility. Everyone sees that this is about opening a new page in the history of Haiti.”

Haitian opposition leaders, who have publicly rejected a U.S. plan that would place them in Cabinet posts but leave Mr. Aristide as president, yesterday asked the international community to help ensure a “timely and orderly” departure of Mr. Aristide and install a Supreme Court justice as interim president.

On Tuesday, Mr. Aristide warned that if rebels tried to take the capital, thousands could die. At least 70 people have been killed in the uprising, about 40 of them police officers.

On Capitol Hill, the State Department’s top official for Latin America, Assistant Secretary of State Roger Noriega, told House members the United States is working with the Organization of American States, the Caribbean Community and other multinational bodies to find a peaceful, democratic solution, Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, Florida Republican told AP.

Mr. Diaz-Balart said Mr. Noriega told the legislators that if a political solution cannot be reached, “they’ll consider a whole gamut of options, but they do not want to go in and simply prop up Aristide.”

Members of the Congressional Black Caucus praised Mr. Powell in a letter yesterday for his unwillingness to “accept any outcome” that “illegally attempts to remove” Mr. Aristide.

But the group asked Mr. Powell to remove Mr. Noriega from the negotiations, arguing that he has a long history of “being aligned with anti-Aristide business owners.”

In Port-au-Prince, diplomats appeared to be reconsidering their insistence that Mr. Aristide remain president. Two Western diplomats said in Port-au-Prince that they and colleagues were preparing to ask Mr. Aristide to resign, the AP reported.

An opposition politician, citing foreign diplomats, also said the international community had not rejected its counterproposal, sent Tuesday to Mr. Powell.

The plan would install a Supreme Court justice as interim president and ensure Mr. Aristide’s “orderly departure.”

Staff writer Tom Carter contributed to this report.

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