South Florida Sun-Sentinel
February 19, 2004

Aristide says he's ready to die to defend Haiti

Associated Press

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti -- President Jean-Bertrand Aristide declared Thursday he was ready to die to defend his country, indicating he plans to cling to power rather than turn it over to political rivals or rebels who control some towns.

To assess the security of the U.S. Embassy here, the United States said it was sending a military team to Haiti but emphasized it still wants a political solution to the 2-week-old uprising that has killed at least 60 people.

On Thursday, pro-government loyalists patrolled Haiti's second-largest city, Cap-Haitien, vowing to counter any rebel attempt to seize control as frightened police stayed in their station.

Rebels have chased police from more than a dozen towns and cities, some in central Haiti but mostly in the north. From the key northern city of Gonaives, they announced Wednesday that their loosely organized movement will now answer to a single commander and be called the National Resistance Front To Liberate Haiti.

As casualties mount, Aristide held a ceremony in the capital, Port-au-Prince, to honor slain police, repeating his refusal to leave office before his term ends Feb. 7, 2006. It was not clear how many police officers have been killed in the uprising.

``I am ready to give my life if that is what it takes to defend my country,'' he said. ``If wars are expensive, peace can be even more expensive.''

A U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Aristide had rebuffed a U.S. proposal that he defuse the situation by calling early elections and allowing a temporary board to govern Haiti until a president is chosen.

Senior military and Bush administration officials have said there are no plans to resolve the rebellion in Haiti through the use of military force. Only France, Haiti's former colonizer, is considering sending peacekeepers, though under U.N. auspices.

Secretary of State Colin Powell, in an interview with ABC Radio's ``Live in America'' program, said there is a ``solid consensus'' on the Haitian issue among the United States, the Organization of American States, the United Nations, France and Canada. He said the international community must do what it can to help Aristide.

But Powell also said that while the United States was not planning to try to persuade Aristide to resign, it would not object if he agreed to leave ahead of schedule.

``He is the president for some time to come yet. You know, if an agreement is reached that moves that in another direction, that's fine,'' he said.

At the Pentagon, spokesman Lawrence DiRita told reporters that U.S. Ambassador James Foley requested the military team. The team is expected to consist of three or four experts from U.S. Southern Command, the military command with authority over the Caribbean.

Aristide was chosen as Haiti's first freely elected leader in a landslide election in 1990. Eight months later he was ousted by the army and took refuge in the United States. He was restored to power by a U.S. invasion in 1994 and disbanded the army.

At the ceremony for police, Aristide called for the international community to recognize that his is a legitimate government fighting for democracy against a band of terrorists.

He asked police officers to help Haitians preserve democracy.

``I order the police to accompany the people courageously with the constitution as their guide,'' he said. ``When the police are united to the people, they are invincible.''

But Haiti's police force _ which Aristide said numbers fewer than 4,000 _ is outnumbered and outgunned by rebels in outlying posts, where insurgents have been burning stations and attacking officers, causing them to flee.

``We have a single strategy, to liberate all the cities in all the districts,'' Winter Etienne, a leader of the Gonaives Resistance Front, said Wednesday.

He said rebels from various groups are united behind one commander: Guy Philippe, a former police chief accused of planning a 2001 attack on Haiti's National Palace that killed 10. Philippe has returned to Haiti from exile, and was believed to have crossed over from the Dominican Republic recently.

``We have the same objective _ to oust Aristide,'' Etienne said.

Barricades of car chassis, scrap metal and trees blocked highways at the edge of the northern port of Cap-Haitien, which has about a half-million residents.

Aristide loyalists manning the barricades said no one would be allowed past. Residents formed long lines to obtain gasoline since supply routes are blocked. Other Aristide backers patrolled with guns, vowing to take a stand against the rebellion.

``We have machetes and guns, and we will resist,'' carpenter Pierre Frandley said.

Police in Cap-Haitien remained holed up in their station, making clear they were too scared to patrol the streets. But children returned to school Thursday after rumors of a looming rebel attack prompted classes to be canceled two days earlier.

The recent crisis has been brewing since Aristide's party swept flawed legislative elections in 2000. Donors froze millions in international aid, leaving Aristide no means to keep election promises to Haiti's poor.

Since then, Aristide has lost support amid charges he uses police and militants to terrorize opponents and allows corruption fueled by drug-trafficking to go unchecked.

The U.N. Security Council on Wednesday threw its weight behind Caribbean and Latin American efforts to find a peaceful political solution but said there was no discussion about sending U.N. peacekeepers.

Associated Press military writer Robert Burns contributed to this story from Washington.

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