The Miami Herald
Sun, Feb. 22, 2004

Aristide accepts peace plan

Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide agrees to an accord pushed by U.S. and regional diplomats, but the opposition wants more time to decide.


  PORT-AU-PRINCE -- Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide embraced a U.S.-backed plan that would force him to share power with the opposition Saturday, but opposition leaders remained hesitant about abandoning their demand that he resign.

  ''The key point of disagreement . . . is not included: The element of Aristide's resignation and his departure date,'' said Andy Apaid, a spokesman for the Democratic Platform, a coalition of several opposition political parties and civil society groups.

  The opposition has until 5 p.m. Monday to decide whether it agrees with the accord, which would have a new prime minister appointed by a three-member panel made up of representatives from Aristide, the opposition and the international community.

  The plan, presented by diplomats including Roger Noriega, assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere Affairs, also calls for an internationally trained and supervised police force and a commitment by Aristide to disarm political gangs. Both sides would be required to take steps toward long overdue parliamentary elections, and the new government would appoint a police chief as well as an official to investigate allegations of police abuse.

  The plan does not, however, involve bringing in international peacekeepers to quell a revolt in northern and central Haiti, where gangs and former soldiers have chased police out of dozens of towns and villages. The rebels now rule Gonaives, the country's fourth-largest city.

  At least 60 people have been killed in two weeks of fighting, which triggered the stepped-up international pressure on Aristide to accept a deal with a political opposition that has tried to distance itself from the rebels.

  Noriega and senior envoys from France, Canada and the Caribbean Community met first with Aristide, who emerged upbeat after the session at the National Palace. He was
  surrounded by government ministers as he spoke to reporters -- though Prime Minister Yvon Neptune was noticeably absent.

  ''Completely and entirely I have accepted,'' Aristide said. ``We think the political solution is indispensable to have all of us moving ahead. We all should know today that if we have the international community and the Haitian people acting together, we can prevent the thugs and terrorists in Gonaives from moving . . . elsewhere.

  ``This is a must. We think it is a collective responsibility. We should not let killers [move] ahead, killing people.''

  Also Saturday, Washington ordered nonessential diplomatic personnel to leave the country and warned American citizens that the country was no longer safe.

  Though peacekeepers are not part of the plan, Aristide did ask the foreign officials for help in addressing the rebels, said Ira Kurzban, a Miami attorney who serves as the government's lawyer and lobbyist in the United States. He sat in on the talks.

  Members of the international delegation said the negotiations were frank and open and that they remained optimistic about a solution.

  Political tensions have been building in Haiti since flawed legislative elections in 2000. But it was a bloody attack by pro-Aristide militants on university students in December that led opposition groups to join forces in a demand for the president's resignation. Aristide has vowed to stay in power until his term ends in 2006.

  More serious violence erupted Feb. 5 when a one-time pro-Aristide gang in Gonaives seized the city and began launching raids against surrounding towns. They were later joined by former members of the armed forces, abolished by Aristide in 1995.

  Tensions were also high Saturday in Cap-Haitien, where rebels say they will attack next, after a radio station owner was shot twice while driving to work.

  Pierre Elie Sem, the northeast correspondent for the privately owned Radio Metropole and director of Radio Hispagnola in Cap-Haitien, survived the attack.

  A colleague said he believed Sem was targeted because the station is the one of the few in northern Haiti that hasn't shut down because of the crisis.

  Herald correspondent Amy Bracken contributed to this report.