- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 2, 2004

Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide said last night that he was forced from his country by the U.S. military early Sunday morning, an accusation the Bush administration dismissed as “complete nonsense.”

Calling his ouster a “coup d’etat” by the United States, Mr. Aristide said, “I was told that to avoid bloodshed I’d better leave.” The soldiers who came to get him, he said, were “white American, white military.”

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, responding to complaints earlier in the day from black U.S. lawmakers and activists, said Mr. Aristide “was not kidnapped. We did not force him on the airplane. He went on the plane willingly.”

White House spokesman Scott McClellan said the accusations were “complete nonsense,” and administration officials outlined a detailed chain of events that led to Mr. Aristide’s weekend departure.

“We took steps to protect Mr. Aristide, we took steps to protect his family, and they departed Haiti,” he said. “It was Mr. Aristide’s decision to resign.”

“The idea that someone was abducted is just totally inconsistent with everything I heard or saw,” Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld said.

But Mr. Aristide told a different story in interviews last night with CNN and the Associated Press, arranged by the Rev. Jesse Jackson, one of many black lawmakers and activists who support Mr. Aristide.

“Agents were telling me that if I don’t leave they would start shooting and killing in a matter of time,” Mr. Aristide said last night in an interview with the AP from Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic, where he landed early yesterday.

Mr. Aristide admitted signing documents that removed him from power, but he said he had done so out of fear that the violence in his country, which has raged during the nearly monthlong political siege, would continue.

“And then, despite of diplomatic conversations we had, despite of all we did in a diplomatic way to prevent them to organize that massacre which would lead to a bloodshed, we had to leave and spent 20 hours in an American plane,” he said.

His captors, he told CNN, “were not Haitian forces. They were … Americans and Haitians together, acting to surround the airport, my house, the palace.”

“No one should force an elected president to move in order to avoid bloodshed,” Mr. Aristide said. “They lied to me, and they may lie to you, too.”

White House officials last night had no new comment on Mr. Aristide’s interviews and stood by their remarks from earlier in the day.

Democratic Reps. Maxine Waters of California and Charles B. Rangel of New York, as well as black activist and Aristide friend Randall Robinson, said in separate statements yesterday that armed U.S. guards took the Haitian leader out of his presidential home in the capital, Port-au-Prince, and put him on a plane.

Mrs. Waters told CNN that she had talked on the phone with Mr. Aristide’s wife, Mildred, who said he had been “forced to leave his home.”

Mrs. Waters also said that a U.S. Embassy official told Mr. Aristide that he “had to go now — that if he didn’t go, he would be killed and a lot of Haitians would be killed.”

Mr. Robinson, speaking from his home on the Caribbean island of St. Kitts, said Mr. Aristide had called him on a cellular phone yesterday from the Central African Republic, where the deposed leader said he was being guarded by African and French soldiers.

“The president said to me that he had been abducted from his home by about 20 American soldiers in full battle gear with automatic weapons and put on a plane” on Sunday morning, Mr. Robinson said.

Mr. Rangel said he had a similar cell-phone conversation with Mr. Aristide, who was elected to a five-year term in fractious balloting in 2001.

Administration officials yesterday offered their account of the weekend events.

Late Saturday night, James B. Foley, U.S. ambassador to Haiti, got a phone call from a high-level aide to Mr. Aristide, with a simple question: If Mr. Aristide resigned, would the United States be able to protect him?

The call prompted a series of events that included a middle-of-the-night phone call to President Bush and a scramble to find a plane to carry Mr. Aristide into exile.

The call to Mr. Foley followed consultations between Mr. Aristide and U.S. officials as Haiti plunged deeper into civil war and rebels prepared to take Port-au-Prince.

Earlier that day, the leader had learned that the United States had no plans to protect him if rebels swarmed into his presidential compound, according to a Bush administration official.

Mr. Powell had called former Rep. Ron Dellums, California Democrat, whom Mr. Aristide had hired as a Washington lobbyist, and told him that the United States had no plans to protect the deposed leader.

During the Saturday call with Mr. Foley, Mr. Aristide’s aide asked whether the United States could “help facilitate his departure,” Mr. McClellan said yesterday.

Mr. Foley then called the Department of State and consulted with Mr. Powell and Roger Noriega, assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs. After more discussions, the ambassador called Mr. Aristide’s office to say “that if he decided to leave, the United States could facilitate his departure,” Mr. McClellan said.

At 1:30 a.m. Sunday, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice called Mr. Bush to inform him that Mr. Aristide was resigning, Mr. McClellan said. Mr. Bush called Mr. Rumsfeld to authorize deployment of the Marines.

Around 4:30 a.m. Sunday, Mr. Foley’s deputy, Luis Moreno, went to the Haitian president’s residence, where they had a “very civil, pleasant conversation,” according to a senior-level State Department official.

The United States arranged for a plane to Haiti to pick up Mr. Aristide, who traveled via motorcade to the airport with his own retinue of security guards, including some contracted Americans.

Before takeoff at 6:15 a.m., Mr. Aristide gave a copy of his resignation letter to Mr. Moreno.

The aircraft had no destination until it stopped to refuel in Antigua, after which it flew to the Central African Republic, where it landed at 1 a.m. yesterday, the senior State official said.

Mr. Powell said “some 15 members of [Mr. Aristide’s] personal security detachment were with him from his house to the airport, onto the plane with him, onto the refueling locations and onto the Central African Republic, and that’s what’s happened, notwithstanding any cell phone reports to the contrary.”

The United States is supporting the creation of a “council of elders” to run Haiti, organize elections and disarm rebels in the capital.

U.S. diplomats yesterday began working to form a council of rebel leaders, Haiti government officials and the international community that within days should have about a dozen “eminent” Haitians, the State Department said.

The council would arrange presidential and parliamentary elections and regroup Haitian police who fled this month as rebels swept across the country.

Washington was focusing on forming the commission with Mr. Aristide’s interim successor, Chief Justice Boniface Alexandre, Prime Minister Yvon Neptune and probably a representative from the Caribbean Community, a White House official said.

Last night, Mr. Rangel hedged his earlier remarks, saying Mr. Aristide “felt as though he was kidnapped.”

“They strongly suggested that he get out of town. The military helped him make the decision,” Mr. Rangel told reporters as a Congressional Black Caucus delegation met in New York last night with United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

A spokeswoman for Sen. Tom Harkin said the Iowa Democrat also doubted Mr. Aristide’s accusation based on a conversation with the deposed leader.

“Senator Harkin does not believe [Mr. Aristide] was kidnapped and does believe that he resigned,” Allison Dobson told Newsday.

Nicholas Kralev contributed to this report.

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