Los Angeles Times
February 25, 2004

Aristide Appeals to World for Aid

Haitian leader warns of a tide of refugees. Rivals reject a power-sharing deal pushed by the U.S.

By Carol J. Williams
Times Staff Writer

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti Defying demands that he resign to avert bloody clashes with rebels for this capital city, President Jean-Bertrand Aristide appealed Tuesday for foreign intervention to save his government as U.S. diplomats sought to keep alive negotiations to end the crisis.

Aristide's call for help accompanied by a warning that desperate Haitians might soon seek refuge in Florida preceded a decision by his mainstream political opponents to reject a power-sharing proposal promoted by U.S. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and other Western diplomats. The plan called for an interim government led by a new prime minister acceptable to Aristide and his political rivals. It would leave Aristide to serve out the remaining two years of his presidency.

Aristide did not specifically call for military intervention Tuesday but made it clear that he needed armed support such as international police to defend the capital.

"Should those killers come to Port-au-Prince, you may have thousands of people who may be killed. We need the presence of the international community as soon as possible," Aristide said in the reception room of the National Palace, where less than eight weeks ago he had celebrated the bicentennial anniversary of Haiti's independence.

"Unfortunately, many brothers and sisters will take to the sea, they will become boat people," said the Haitian president, who spoke at a news conference in French, English, Creole and Spanish.

"How many will die before reaching Florida? I don't know," Aristide said. He asked Haitians to fight armed rebels who have seized control of more than half of the Caribbean nation. About 70 people, many of them Aristide's police officers, have been killed since the revolt began Feb. 5 in Gonaives.

U.S. Coast Guard officials and Western diplomats in Port-au-Prince said they had seen no evidence of accelerated boat building. Only a few refugees have been intercepted off Haiti in the last three weeks.

The United States, which sent 50 combat-ready Marines to Port-au-Prince to protect the U.S. Embassy and staff, has been using military planes to patrol Haitian shores and guard against a possible surge in refugees, White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan said.

"We continue to carefully monitor that situation, but we've not seen any indication [of] a surge in migration at this point," he said, making it clear that any refugees caught would be returned home.

Aristide agreed to the power-sharing deal presented Saturday by diplomats from the United States, Canada, France, the Caribbean Community and the Organization of American States.

The 300-plus political parties, unions, movements and civic groups aligned within an opposition force calling itself the Democratic Platform have steadfastly refused to negotiate new governing arrangements until Aristide resigns. They blame him for rampant poverty, repression and lawlessness and contend that he cannot be part of Haiti's future.

Powell telephoned a group of opposition leaders Monday to urge them to reconsider their refusal of the plan. In the end, he won only a promise to hold off their formal rejection until 5 p.m. Tuesday.

Asked Tuesday evening whether the opposition had given its answer, Anthony Barbier of the Foundation for a New Haiti, one of the opposition movements, said that it had, and that the message was "Aristide must go."

The U.S. State Department released a statement late Tuesday saying its diplomats were working with French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin to organize a meeting in Paris to resolve the crisis.

U.S. diplomats, including Powell, were still urging opposition leaders to accept the plan.

"It's important that the parties in Haiti not miss the opportunity to solve the political issues in a peaceful, democratic manner," the State Department said. "The plan provides a way for the opposition to participate fully in the political process under Haiti's constitution."

Democratic lawmakers say the Bush administration doesn't appear to have any alternative plan if diplomacy fails. The State Department's top official for Latin America, Assistant Secretary of State Roger Noriega, privately briefed a small group of senators Tuesday. Noriega, who led a U.S. delegation to Haiti last weekend, declined to comment after the meeting.

Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.) said the administration's message was that "we have nothing to say, but we'll see how things unfold." Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) said it "is pretty clear: There is no strategy." Nelson said the administration's "hands-off policy" seems to be aimed at driving Aristide from power.

Diplomats in Port-au-Prince who had been involved in the negotiations declined to discuss the situation.

Opposition leaders, usually eager to publicly air their opinions, said they would wait until today to give details of their deliberations.

The silence following the rejection of the diplomats' proposal was seen here as the calm before the storm.

The capital is strewn with barricades erected by pro-Aristide gangs bracing for a rebel attack after Cap-Haitien, the country's second-largest city, fell to the insurgents Sunday. Rebel commander Guy Philippe, who returned from exile in the Dominican Republic to help lead the insurrection, has vowed to press on to Port-au-Prince.

A source in Cap-Haitien said by telephone that 150 armed rebels had left the city before dawn Tuesday and that others appeared to be preparing to move soon.

The rebels number only a few hundred, but they've rolled over a score of towns and cities in the last three weeks, meeting little resistance. Haiti has no army, and many police officers have fled or joined their attackers. Aristide confirmed Tuesday that at least 20% of the nation's 5,000 police officers had deserted.

The rebel groups have moved en masse, leaving behind few gunmen to ensure their hold on captured territory. Few incidents of counter-insurrection have been reported. In most captured towns, residents have cheered the rebels' arrival and celebrated with looting sprees and anti-Aristide chants.

Diplomats who had tried to press their political plan on Aristide and his rivals had hoped it would somehow halt the armed rebellion. Most of the opposition leaders have condemned the rebels' violent tactics and distanced themselves from the uprising, leaving unclear how much influence they might have with the gunmen.

At his news conference, Aristide repeated accusations that his political challengers were in league with the rebels, referring to all of his opponents as "criminals, killers and terrorists."

During a 90-minute discourse, Aristide displayed pictures of the mutilated corpses of victims killed by military death squads that terrorized Haitians during the three years of junta rule after a 1991 coup that deposed him seven months into his first term as president. A U.S. military invasion, largely triggered by a flood of Haitian refugees fleeing the dictatorship, restored him to power three years later.

The reinstatement of Aristide as the country's first democratically elected leader was cheered by many of the politicians and social leaders who are now demanding his resignation.

The rebels' successes have inspired disgruntled Haitians throughout the north and central plains to attack symbols of Aristide's government, mostly police stations and municipal offices.

Remnants of the former Haitian National Army, disbanded by Aristide in 1995, arrived from the Dominican Republic a few days after the Gonaives uprising the first successful rebel takeover of a town to support what has become a roving rebellion.

Philippe, a former army officer from the junta years who was aligned with Aristide until two years ago, promised to be in Port-au-Prince by Sunday.