- The Washington Times - Monday, March 8, 2004

At least five Haitian demonstrators and a foreign journalist were killed in the streets of Port-au-Prince yesterday when violence broke out during a demonstration demanding that exiled President Jean-Bertrand Aristide be brought home to stand trial.

U.S. Marines returned fire, the first known armed action by U.S. forces sent to stabilize the country.

Mr. Aristide, meanwhile, told The Washington Times through an intermediary that he still considered himself the rightful president of Haiti and that he wanted to return to his duties as soon as possible.

The violence in the Haitian capital was centered in front of the presidential National Palace, where several thousand people had gathered to celebrate Mr. Aristide’s ouster and to demand that he stand trial.

Cameraman Ricardo Ortega of Spain’s Antena 3 television network was shot in the stomach and died at Port-au-Prince’s private Canape Vert Hospital, the Associated Press reported. Five demonstrators also were killed.

The hospital said it treated more than 30 injured, including Fort Lauderdale (Fla.) Sun-Sentinel photographer Michael Laughlin, 37, who was in stable condition last night with wounds to the shoulder and face.

Witnesses said they saw Aristide supporters shooting at the crowd and complained that Western peacekeepers did nothing to prevent the violence.

U.S. Marine Maj. Richard Crusan said it was not clear who the gunmen were. He told the Associated Press that three Marines returned fire from the palace in the direction of the gunshots.

Mr. Aristide, meanwhile, repeated his claims that he had been kidnapped by U.S. troops and tricked into leaving the country during an interview by telephone from Paris for The Washington Times.

“President Aristide’s plans are to return to his country as quickly as possible,” said French writer Claude Ribbe, who last spoke to the Haitian leader at 5:20 a.m. yesterday Washington time. Mr. Aristide is being held under tight restrictions in the Central African Republic and is not allowed to contact journalists directly, he said.

“He has no desire to remain in the Central African Republic, where he was taken by force,” said Mr. Ribbe, asserting that Mr. Aristide left Haiti without money or even a change of clothes.

The United States has rejected Mr. Aristide’s version of the events leading to his departure from Haiti last week as “complete nonsense.”

“We took steps to protect Mr. Aristide, we took steps to protect his family, and they departed Haiti,” said White House spokesman Scott McClellan last week. “It was Mr. Aristide’s decision to resign.”

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

Mr. Aristide insisted through Mr. Ribbe yesterday that the document he signed before leaving Haiti was not a resignation, and that he had not expected to be whisked out of the country.

“In his mind, to leave meant to temporarily go to a foreign embassy in Port-au-Prince to avoid a blood bath,” said Mr. Ribbe.

“President Aristide confirms that he was kidnapped by the Americans, that he did not quit his post and that he still considers himself the president of Haiti,” the French writer said.

Mr. Ribbe said Mr. Aristide, who is restricted to the Renaissance Palace in the Central African Republic’s capital, Bangui, compared himself to the Haitian revolutionary Toussaint L’Ouverture who fought and was imprisoned by French colonial authorities in the early 1800s.

“The president, even as a prisoner, stands up against this coup d’etat and this occupation. He can rely on his people to stand with him and fight,” relayed Mr. Ribbe. But he said Mr. Aristide had very limited communication facilities that did not allow him to contact his supporters at home.

Deposed once before, the priest-turned-president was reinstated to power by U.S. forces in 1994. But Mr. Aristide rapidly lost support after flawed elections in 2002, a process that accelerated with his use of armed gangs to repress political opposition and the corruption that thrived under his leadership.

The ruckus over Mr. Aristide’s departure has turned into an election-season political football in Washington.

Democratic White House hopeful John Kerry has criticized the administration’s handling of the crisis, insisting Washington should have supported the democratically elected leader.

“Look, Aristide was no picnic, and did a lot of things wrong,” the Massachusetts senator said in an interview in the New York Times. But Washington “had understandings in the region about the right of a democratic regime to ask for help. And we contravened all of that. I think it’s a terrible message to the region, democracies, and it’s shortsighted.”

In Port-au-Prince yesterday, rebel leader Guy Philippe was carried through the streets on the shoulders of demonstrators calling for Mr. Aristide to face trial, Reuters news agency reported from Haiti.

“Guy Philippe, hero; Aristide, zero,” the crowd chanted as heavily armed U.S. and French troops looked on.

More than 200 people died in the three-week uprising that ended with Mr. Aristide’s departure and in subsequent revenge killings that have left dead bodies in the streets.

Despite his private complaints to The Washington Times, a statement released by Mr. Aristide yesterday through the government of the Central African Republic said he was being “well looked after.”

His wife, Mildred, an American citizen, looked on tight-lipped as the statement was read, news agencies reported. Mr. Ribbe said Mrs. Aristide had told him she was a “prisoner” by her husband’s side.

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