- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 26, 2004

More than 500 Haitian refugees are being held aboard Coast Guard cutters at sea as the U.S. government girds for a new wave of refugees seeking to cross 600 miles of ocean from the strife-torn nation to America.

Plucked from a dozen boats in the Windward Pass northwest of Haiti, where Haitian boat people historically have begun the treacherous journey to the United States, the refugees were described by U.S. authorities as the first of many who will seek to escape an expected rebel assault on the capital, Port-au-Prince.

More than 70,000 Haitians were intercepted at sea in the three years of violence after a military coup in September 1991, when Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide first was deposed.

The Coast Guard was conducting both air and sea patrols yesterday in the ongoing hunt for Haitian refugees, law-enforcement authorities said. U.S. policy is to send Haitians found at sea back to Haiti.

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell told the Senate Budget Committee yesterday that he and President Bush were working for a political solution in Haiti, but continued to be concerned about a “spurt in the number of people” attempting to escape by boat.

“We are in a difficult moment in the life of Haiti, in the life of the Haitian people,” Mr. Powell said. “It’s a great disappointment to me to find ourselves in this position. … The political process, the democratic political process in Haiti, has essentially collapsed. And the international community is ready to get engaged, willing to get engaged.”

In later comments, Mr. Powell expressed doubt about whether Mr. Aristide could stay in power.

“Whether or not he is able to effectively continue as president is something he will have to examine carefully in the interests of the Haitian people,” Mr. Powell said.

Meanwhile, the administration is being pressured by the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) and Democrats to intervene more directly.

“It seems ludicrous that we would look at an island … off of our coast with a newly elected president, elected through a democratic process, and not give them relief and refuge,” Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee, Texas Democrat, said yesterday, arguing that the alternative was “a complete massacre.”

“I hope that this country still promotes the idea of democracy … even if you have a problem with the administration there, in this case Aristide, he is still elected and is supported by the people in Haiti.”

CBC members met Wednesday for 90 minutes with Mr. Powell and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice to urge intervention in Haiti, the world’s oldest black republic. Mr. Bush joined the meeting for about 30 minutes.

Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, Maryland Democrat and the caucus chairman, said after the meeting with administration members, “We respectfully asked the president to use his office and his voice to send a clear message to the rebels and thugs now set on overthrowing a democratically elected government that the United States and the international community will not stand by and let that happen.”

He did not return calls yesterday seeking elaboration.

But most U.S. officials have given up hope of the rebels relenting, citing the mistrust the rebels have for Mr. Aristide.

“Their reasoning is well-known,” Mr. Powell testified yesterday. “They’ve stated it clearly: They believe they have been misled previously in discussions with him.”

In the meantime, Mr. Powell said, U.S. officials are trying to decide how best to respond to the challenge of a massive wave of Haitian boat people.

Sen. Bill Nelson, Florida Democrat, told Mr. Powell that Haitians seeking to escape to the United States already had begun their migration in what he called “the rickety boats they’re building.”

He said they had shown up in Jamaica, the Turks and Caicos Islands and on a freighter five miles off the Florida coast.

“This exodus is coming if we don’t get in there and stabilize it,” he said.

On Wednesday, Mr. Bush promised to turn back any Haitians trying to reach U.S. shores, but said the United States would encourage the international community to provide a “security presence” in the rebel-torn nation as part of a political settlement.

The White House yesterday said the president “deplores” the violence in Haiti, is “greatly concerned” about the loss of life and continues to work with the Organization of American States and with the Caribbean Community on a peaceful political solution.

Democratic presidential front-runner John Kerry yesterday asked President Bush to name Sen. Bob Graham, Florida Democrat, as a special envoy to Haiti. Mr. Graham is expected to announce his support for Mr. Kerry in the next several days.

Also yesterday, another Democratic presidential contender, the Rev. Al Sharpton, said he successfully has negotiated with opposition leaders and Mr. Aristide to go to Haiti on a “fact-finding mission,” which he will make next week.

The Coast Guard has been patrolling the Windward Pass since an armed revolt targeting Mr. Aristide first flared in Haiti on Feb. 5. A total of 546 Haitian refugees have been taken off 12 boats in the past few days, all within 50 miles of the Haitian shore, according to Coast Guard spokesman Luis Diaz.

“It doesn’t seem to be a very large amount” so far, although the Coast Guard has increased its patrols in the Windward Pass in preparation for a new surge, Mr. Diaz said.

The Coast Guard continued yesterday to interview 21 Haitians and a Filipino crew taken off a 200-foot Panamanian-registered freighter, the Margot. The ship had been intercepted just off the Miami coast at about 7 p.m. Wednesday, after a distress call from the captain who said people were aboard with weapons.

Officials from the Coast Guard, U.S. Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement and FBI are trying to determine whether the vessel had been hijacked, in which case the Haitians would be taken ashore and arrested. Four shotguns and a handgun were given to Coast Guard authorities before they boarded the freighter.

The ship’s last port-of-call was the western Haitian port of Gonaives, where the uprising against Mr. Aristide began.

Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, the president’s brother, described the taking of the Margot as a hijacking.

He said the Haitians aboard should be sent back to Haiti “unless they have a well-founded fear of persecution that is specific and meets the criteria of our laws.”

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