Wednesday, February 18, 2004

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said yesterday the United States would not accept Haiti’s president being ousted by the “thugs” and “murderers” rampaging through the streets of the impoverished nation.

But he steered away from recommending that Washington answer an appeal from President Jean-Bertrand Aristide for intervention to end an 11-day-old uprising that has left at least 56 persons dead.

The appeal was renewed yesterday in the Haitian capital, Port-au-Prince, by Mr. Aristide’s prime minister, Yvon Neptune, who warned of an impending coup and appealed for international help.

“We are witnessing the coup d’etat machine in motion,” Mr. Neptune said, urging the international community “to show it really wants peace and stability.”

Both Haitian leaders stopped short of asking for military intervention. Mr. Aristide on Monday asked for “technical assistance.”

“We cannot buy into a proposition that an elected president can be forced from office by thugs,” Mr. Powell told reporters.

Another State Department official, when asked whether the United States would allow the rebels to bring down Mr. Aristide’s government, said simply: “No.”

Mr. Powell said Washington was working with the United Nations, the Organization of American States, the Caribbean Community and France to try to open a dialogue between the armed opposition groups and Mr. Aristide.

“There is frankly no enthusiasm right now for sending in military or police forces to put down the violence that we are seeing,” he said.

French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin went further, suggesting in a radio interview that Paris could send security forces into the tiny nation of 8 million. France has some 4,000 military personnel based in nearby Martinique and Guadeloupe.

Asked whether such forces could be deployed quickly, Mr. de Villepin said: “Absolutely. Many friendly countries are mobilized.”

Still, he said, any international mobilization “supposes a spurt of effort by Haiti’s political class, that President Aristide commits himself to a respect of civil peace. That’s his first responsibility.”

A State Department official said that during a meeting between Mr. de Villepin and Mr. Powell on Friday, the French gave no indication they were prepared to intervene.

Mr. Powell said the rebellion — which erupted in Gonaives, 70 miles northwest of Port-au-Prince, and spread to a number of cities — was taking on new dimensions as bandits and political exiles try to exploit the instability.

“They are murderers and thugs, and you can’t expect anyone to deal [with them],” he said.

Former members of the army, which Mr. Aristide dissolved in 1995, have seized the central city of Hinche, torching the police station and freeing prisoners.

Rebels also control most roads leading in and out of the north-central Artibonite region, home to almost 1 million people, and have isolated the north by chasing police from a dozen towns.

Witnesses said the rebels were led by Louis-Jodel Chamblain, a former soldier who once headed the feared paramilitary group FRAPH — the Front for the Advancement and Progress of Haiti — which killed and maimed hundreds of Aristide supporters under military dictatorship between 1991 and 1994. The witness accounts could not be independently confirmed.

Mr. Aristide, a slum priest who preached revolution to Haiti’s poor, became the country’s first freely elected leader in 1990. He was ousted by a coup in 1991 but was restored to power by U.S. troops in 1994.

The uprising is threatening the delivery of humanitarian supplies of food and medicine on which many Haitians depend and raised fears of a repeat of the 1992 exodus that saw hundreds die at sea while fleeing to neighboring islands or the United States.

U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees spokesman Ron Redmond said his agency was meeting with U.S. and Caribbean officials to discuss the problem.

“We would certainly hope that these governments would receive fleeing asylum seekers,” with UNHCR ready to help, Mr. Redmond said.

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said the United States was “concerned about a possible outflow” but that, at this point, there were no immediate signs of refugees trying to leave the half-island nation.

“We’ve been monitoring the situation closely. The most important thing is to try and bring peace and calm to the situation in Haiti … so they don’t feel pressured to leave,” Mr. Boucher said.

Discontent has grown in Haiti since Mr. Aristide’s party swept flawed legislative elections in 2000 and international donors froze millions of dollars.

Mr. Aristide is accused of using police and armed militants to stifle dissent and allowing corrupt officials to enrich themselves while Haitians suffer deepening poverty.

Opposition politicians refuse to participate in new elections unless Mr. Aristide steps down, and rebels say they will put down their weapons only when he is ousted.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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