The Washington Post
Monday, March 1, 2004; Page A01

Aristide Resigns, Flies Into Exile; U.S. Marines to Lead Peacekeeping

Haiti Wracked By New Round Of Violence

By Kevin Sullivan and Scott Wilson
Washington Post Foreign Service

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti, Feb. 29 -- President Jean-Bertrand Aristide resigned and flew into exile on Sunday, bowing to a three-week rebel offensive and increasing pressure from the United States and other governments to leave office.

At the White House, President Bush ordered the deployment of Marines to be the lead element in a multinational peacekeeping force in Haiti. The first contingent of Marines -- fewer than 100, according to defense officials -- arrived Sunday evening as the country was wracked by a new round of gunfire, looting and violence that began after Aristide left at dawn.

The U.N. Security Council, meeting at the request of the United States and France, voted unanimously late Sunday to authorize an international force to serve in Haiti for no longer than three months, when it would be replaced by U.N. peacekeepers.

Aristide's departure came after rebels sworn to oust him had taken over more than half of the country, sparking battles that have killed more than 70 people.

Boniface Alexandre, the head of Haiti's highest court, announced at midmorning that he was taking office as interim president, as required by the constitution. "The task will not be an easy one," Alexandre said at a ceremony attended by the U.S. and French ambassadors. "Haiti is in crisis. . . . It needs all its sons and daughters. No one should take justice into their own hands."

Alexandre and a seven-member council of prominent citizens, including representatives of Aristide's party and the opposition, were to select a new prime minister and form an interim government -- part of a U.S.-backed power-sharing plan that Aristide had agreed to earlier this month in the hopes of preserving his presidency.

Guy Philippe, 36, the leader of rebels who began an armed insurrection against Aristide on Feb. 5, said on local radio Sunday afternoon that his forces would support Alexandre and cooperate with international peacekeepers. "It is not time for fighting anymore," said Philippe, a former army officer and police chief who had vowed to capture or kill Aristide if he did not step down.

It was the second time Aristide, 50, a former Roman Catholic priest, had been forced out of the presidency and into exile.

Aristide departed Port-au-Prince at 6:15 a.m., escorted by U.S. security forces as he left the National Palace, U.S. officials said. A U.S. government aircraft flew him to the neighboring island of Antigua, then onward to the Central African Republic and a final destination not yet determined, according to U.S. officials.

Prime Minister Yvon Neptune read a statement by Aristide, quoting the president as saying he resigned to avoid further bloodshed. "Today is a very difficult day. . . . I am determined to respect the constitution," the statement said. "The constitution should not sink in the blood of the Haitian people."

"I know it is not what the vast majority of Haitians wished would have happened," said Neptune, who will serve as prime minister until a replacement is named by the interim council.

Witnesses said some rebel forces arrived in the capital Sunday afternoon and manned roadblocks alongside police who were trying to stop the rampage that erupted as news spread of Aristide's departure. Armed supporters of Aristide, who abandoned office three years into his five-year term, marauded all day through this city of 1.3 million people.

Black smoke billowed overhead as entire city blocks of gas stations, stores and banks burned. Gunfire echoed around the hills that rise sharply from the center of the city, located on the Caribbean. Witnesses saw a dozen or more bodies lying in the streets, and local radio reported that 3,000 inmates had been released from the national penitentiary. The area around the National Palace, dominated Saturday by thousands of Aristide supporters vowing to support him to the death, was filled with running gun battles between furious Aristide supporters and police.

Three U.S. Coast Guard cutters were stationed just offshore throughout the day, apparently to head off any exodus by sea of those fleeing the violence.

In his remarks announcing the dispatch of Marines on Sunday, Bush said Aristide's departure offers Haiti a "hopeful future" and called on Haitians to reject violence and "give this break from the past a chance to work." He called Sunday's events "the beginning of a new chapter in the country's history."

Aristide's resignation came after the Bush administration and the French government urged him to step down and avoid a rebel siege of the capital of the Western Hemisphere's poorest nation. In recent days, the Bush administration applied strong pressure on Aristide. A White House spokesman on Saturday night questioned his fitness to rule and said he was largely responsible for the crisis.

Aristide, whose resistance to the brutal Duvalier family dictatorship helped bring it down in 1986, became the country's first freely elected president in 1990. But a military coup forced him into exile seven months after he took office promising to lift up Haiti's poor majority. The Clinton administration sent 23,000 U.S. troops to Haiti in 1994 to restore him to power, and invested $2.3 billion to help establish a new police force and rebuild the country of 8 million.

But Aristide, reelected in November 2000, had fallen out of favor with foreign governments and international organizations for his increasingly authoritarian style. A broad-based civic opposition, accusing Aristide of ruining the economy, as well as corruption and political intimidation, had also called for his resignation.

Pentagon officials said the first Marine contingent was the vanguard of a multinational force, and more Marines were likely to be flown in over the next few days. The Marine force was formed from elements of an infantry battalion based at Camp Lejeune, N.C. It will be prepared to perform a variety of missions, from security enforcement to humanitarian assistance, the officials said.

"They're not going in to try to fix the situation in Haiti," one U.S. military officer familiar with the planning said. "The first group will go in to support the Coast Guard and eventually morph into more as other countries send troops."

The Marine task force is in addition to 50 members of a Marine anti-terrorist security team that has been in Port-au-Prince for several days to help secure the U.S. Embassy.

The French government said it also dispatched police and military forces to the country, and Prime Minister Paul Martin of Canada, which already has a small number of troops in the country, said he would follow suit. Chile and Brazil also plan to send peacekeepers, according to a U.N. Security Council diplomat.

Aristide's departure leaves Haiti without a broadly recognized government or a viable security force. Some elements of the country's weak 3,000-member national police force appeared to be returning to the street in the capital on Sunday, after abandoning posts across the country in the face of the rebel advance.

As the day wore on into twilight, the anarchy of the early morning appeared to be contained by police, who patrolled empty downtown streets in trucks -- the first significant police presence on the streets after days of armed gangs controlling the city. For the past several days, and especially Sunday morning, it was hard to distinguish pro-Aristide militiamen fighting for a political cause from those taking advantage of the chaos to loot stores.

U.S. Ambassador James B. Foley called on the rebel movement to fulfill its promise and lay down its arms, mostly vintage M1 and M14 rifles. Philippe, who says he commands several thousand rebels, had agreed Friday to postpone an assault on the capital at the request of the U.S. Embassy to "give peace a chance." Foley, who called Aristide's resignation a "patriotic gesture," said the rebel's restraint in recent days "needs to continue."

Leaders of the civic opposition to Aristide said they had long ago distanced themselves from the armed movement and insisted on a negotiated, peaceful exit for Aristide. They had accused him of turning Haiti into an autocratic fiefdom tainted by drug traffickers and terror perpetrated by pro-government gangs.

Charles Baker, a top leader of that opposition movement, said he was pleased that Aristide had left, but disappointed that the United States had not consulted with the opposition.

"As usual, the international community stepped in and didn't bother to let us know what was going on," Baker said. "There's nothing for us to do but wait."

Baker said opposition leaders supported the arrival of an international peacekeeping force, which he said would head off further violence. He said many private business owners were angry about their businesses being looted and were considering using guns to defend their investments.

Baker said the opposition supported the transfer of power to Alexandre, and he said it had no objection to Lavalas, Aristide's party, participating in the selection of a new government to rebuild the nation's shattered courts, police and other institutions.

"We're trying to build a country, not to do what Aristide did," he said. "We would be happy to include honest people who believed in a man they shouldn't have."

When opposition leaders met with reporters late Sunday afternoon, Andre Apaid Jr., a U.S.-born businessman, said: "We all take the commitment that we will never, never again return to a dictatorship in Haiti. We can and we will build a different Haiti."

Alexandre, whose swearing-in was delayed because a judge could not be brought safely to the prime minister's offices during the morning violence, reluctantly agreed to lead the country as president for what could be weeks. Tall and bespectacled, Alexandre acknowledged that "politics is not my best aspect" and told Haitians to remember "no one has the right to carry out justice himself."

"I must confess this will not be easy for me," said Alexandre, who is in his sixties, his hands shaking as he read a statement written out in longhand. "I do this because the constitution demands it."

Staff writers Colum Lynch in New York and Peter Slevin and Bradley Graham in Washington contributed to this report.

© 2004