Violence flares as Haitian President Aristide resigns, seeks asylum; U.S. troops could be deployed
By NANCY SAN MARTIN, SUSANNAH A. NESMITH AND MARTIN MERZER
PORT-AU-PRINCE -- President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, under pressure from a growing rebellion and abandoned by foreign governments, resigned from office Sunday, fled Haiti and sought asylum abroad.
His destination was unknown, but a spokesman in Miami said he believed Aristide was headed to South Africa. Panama also was mentioned as a possible refuge, but a spokesman for that nation said at midday Sunday that it would not grant asylum to Aristide.
Angry crowds of Aristide supporters gathered at the presidential National Palace and roamed elsewhere through Port-au-Prince. Bursts of gunfire reverberated through the streets, looting raged and smoke billowed over the capital.
U.S. troops were expected to be in the vanguard of a multinational security force that some official said could begin arriving as early as Sunday night.
Haitian Supreme Court Chief Justice Boniface Alexandre, a widely respected figure in Haiti, said he was taking power. ''I assume it because the constitution indicates it,'' Alexandre said during a news conference.
He urged the 8 million residents of Haiti and 2 million residents of Port-au-Prince to refrain from further violence.
''The task will not be an easy one,'' he said. ``Haiti is in crisis . .. It needs all its sons and daughters. No one should take justice into their own hands.''
Nevertheless, hundreds of people in Port-au-Prince began looting several buildings and a Texaco gas station. Bands of armed gangs, traveling by foot and vehicle, fired Others threw rocks, smashing windows and denting cars.
In recent weeks, pro-government militants warned foes that, if Aristide left, they would ''burn down their houses and cut off the heads,'' a rallying cry from founding father Jean-Jacques Dessalines aimed at the French 200 years ago.
In the northern city of Cap Haitien, which fell to the rebels last week, gleeful crowds danced in the streets and rebel leader Guy Philippe said his forces soon would enter Port-au-Prince -- an action that could spark renewed conflict.
A rebel force that had been in Gonaives left that north-central city Sunday morning and was believed to be heading south to St. Marc, a city about two hours south that -- at least until Sunday -- had been controlled by Aristide loyalists.
More than 100 people already have died in the civil war, which began Feb. 5 and ejected government forces from most of northern and central Haiti. Rebels were believed to be within 25 miles of Port-au-Prince on Sunday.
U.S. Ambassador James Foley said international security forces, including U.S. troops, soon would be deployed. Some reports mentioned as many as 500 Marines. By noon Sunday, officials at the Miami-based Southern Command said no orders had yet arrived.
''President Aristide made a decision for the good of the Haitian people,'' Foley said during a news conference. ``International military forces, including U.S. forces, will be rapidly arriving in Haiti to begin to restore a sense of security.''
He denied reports that the Bush administration had pressured Aristide to leave, though the White House has been distancing itself from the Haitian president for some time -- an effort that grew stronger in recent days.
Aristide and his wife, Mildred, flew out of Port-au-Prince's airport aboard an unmarked white airplane at 6:15 a.m., accompanied by a black-uniformed security detail. The owner or operator of the plane was not known.
Prime Minister Yvon Neptune said Aristide, Haiti's first democratically elected president in 200 years of independence, signed a letter of resignation and left Haiti to ``prevent bloodshed.''
Reading from what he described as the resignation letter, Neptune quoted Aristide as saying: ``The constitution must not be written with the blood of the Haitian people. If my resignation prevents the shedding of blood, I agree to leave.''
Philippe, the rebel leader, has said that Alexandre would be acceptable to him.
Early reports said Aristide's plane landed briefly at Barahona airport, in southwest Dominican Republic. But officials of that nation later denied that report and said Aristide had not requested asylum there.
Other, unconfirmed reports said Aristide's plane later refueled in Antigua and could be en route to Morocco, but Morocco's foreign ministry said it would not grant asylum to him.
''The kingdom of Morocco does not intend to respond favorably to any eventual request for political asylum by President Aristide,'' the ministry said in a statement.
In Miami, Ira Kurzban, a spokesman for Aristide, said he believed the now former president was headed to South Africa.
On Saturday, a high-ranking French official told The Herald that Panama was willing to offer asylum to Aristide, but that report was disputed Sunday by Panamanian officials who said they had decided not to provide refuge.
By midday, the U.S. Southern Command still had not received an order to dispatch troops to the troubled Caribbean nation.
''We are still looking at possible options and we're waiting for direction from Washington. We have no deployment,'' said Army Col. David McWilliams, spokesman for the Pentagon's headquarters for military operations in the Caribbean.
Several dozen Marines dispatched on Monday were ''continuing to provide security for U.S. protection and property and personnel in Haiti,'' McWilliams said.
In Washington, Rep. Mark Foley, a Palm Beach Republican, said Aristide's departure ''raised the prospects for peace,'' but he called for immediate international action to quickly stabilize Haiti.
''What we do now will be the difference between life and death in Haiti,'' he said.
The developments came as rebels closed in on Port-au-Prince. After swiftly ousting Aristide's demoralized police forces -- the nation does not have an army -- in almost every engagement, they were massing close to the tense capital.
As turmoil continues to sweep the nation, hundreds of Haitians have taken to the sea, trying to reach Florida and other safe havens. Most have been picked up by the U.S. Coast Guard and returned to Haiti.
The Bush administration said it welcomed Aristide's departure and that it was in the best interests of Haiti.
Rep. Charles Rangel said the United States must shoulder much of the blame for Aristide's fall and the chaos that brought it on.
''I don't know what's going on, but we are just as much as part of this coup d'etat as the rebels, looters or anyone else,'' Rangel, D-N.Y., said on ABC's ``This Week.''
It was the second time that Aristide left office under pressure.
First elected president in 2000, Aristide was ousted in 1991 by a military coup but was restored to power in 1994 after the United States sent 20,000 troops to Haiti. A close associate became president in 1996 and Aristide won reelection in 2000.
But he soon came under heavy criticism, with critics charging that he authorized violence against his political opponents, condoned rigged legislative elections and proved ineffective in improving living standards for residents of the hemisphere's poorest nation.
This time, Aristide was cornered by a rebellion that left him in control of little more than the capital of Port-au-Prince, which has been roiled by violence and looting in recent days.
Late Saturday, the White House increased the pressure on Aristide, whose rule has been marked by violence, corruption and poverty.
''This long-simmering crisis is largely of Mr. Aristide's making,'' said White House press secretary Scott McClellan. ``His failure to adhere to democratic principles has contributed to the deep polarization and violent unrest that we are witnessing in Haiti today.''
McClellan said Aristide's actions ``have called into question his fitness to continue to govern.''
''We urge him to examine his position carefully, to accept responsibility and to act in the best interests of the people of Haiti,'' he said.
Saying that Aristide ruled the militant supporters who inflicted death and pain on the capital, French officials for the first time called without equivocation Saturday for his resignation.
They said Panama was willing to grant him asylum. Panamanian officials said they would consider such a request.
''The time has come, Aristide must go. He must resign,'' a senior official at the French Foreign Ministry told The Herald on Saturday.
Kurzban, the Aristide spokesman in Miami, said he believed U.S. intelligence agencies were involved in the ouster.
He claimed that one rebel leader on the island -- Louis Jodel Chamblain, leader of a notoriously brutal paramilitary group that supported Haiti's 1991-1994 military dictatorship -- likely worked for the CIA.
''This was a major operation by the intelligence agencies of the U.S.,'' Kurzban said. ``Eventually, the truth will come out.''
In the hours after Aristide fled, the U.S. Coast Guard continued its watch for boatloads of fleeing Haitians -- but had no indications of mass migration.
''Apparently, Haitians are remaining home in Haiti, and that is a good thing,'' said Luis Diaz, a Coast Guard spokesman in Miami. ``We are urging people not to take to the sea in overcrowded, poorly constructed vessels for a journey that could end their lives. That is a recipe for disaster.''
The Coast Guard has beefed up its resources along the 600 mile stretch between Haiti and the U.S. amid the increasing chaos in that country, Diaz said.
In Miami's Little Haiti neighborhood, residents watched with alarm and mixed emotions as events unfolded in their native country.
A group of Aristide supporters listened to news in the Veyoyo Little Haiti Restaurant near the corner of North Miami Avenue and 54th Street. They expressed anger that Aristide was forced out under apparent U.S. pressure.
''It's not about supporting Aristide or not -- it's the principle,'' said Ernest Gabo, 40. ``He went through elections. It's a matter of choosing between Aristide or these thugs.''
At Notre Dame d'Haiti, some parishioners expressed satisfaction over Aristide's departure but others said he had been ''kidnapped'' by the Bush administration.
''France and the United States are the ones who are destroying us,'' said Merryl Simon, an Aristide supporter. ``The U.S, is continuing to kill the Haitian people.''
From the pulpit, the Rev. Reginald Jean-Mary said in Creole, ``The problem is not solved. We can't call this a victory for one group or another group. It is a defeat for us, the Haitian people.''
In Port-au-Prince, the Rev. Gerard Jean-Juste, once Miamis lighting-rod leader for the Haitian American community, leaned the news by cell phone after finishing his sermon at Sainte Claire Catholic Church in the Tiplas Kazo neighborhood.
His jaw dropped and his eyes turned glassy.
''I cant believe it. I never thought Tidid would leave, said Jean-Juste, a long-time Aristide ally who left his post as director of the Haitian Refugee Center 10 years ago to support Aristides efforts in his homeland. ``Tidid'' is the affectionate nickname used by Aristide supporters.
Jean-Juste said he knew things were not good when he saw security officers dressed in black coming out of that white plane at the airport. The church, set on a hill, overlooks the runway.
``I thought he was going to stay, but he left, Jean-Juste said. ``Its a big disappointment for his following. Im praying that God will save us from violence.
Herald staff writers Trenton Daniel in Port-au-Prince, Frank Davies
in Washington and Richard Brand, Jacqueline Charles, Tere Figueras, David
Ovalle, Renato Perez, Carol Rosenberg and Juan Tamayo in Miami contributed
to this report.