The Miami Herald
Thu, Feb. 26, 2004
France wants Aristide out

French officials privately tell Haiti's president that they no longer support him -- and they now back a coalition government without him.


PORT-AU-PRINCE -- Looting and thuggery flared, roadblocks spread and a sense of dread settled over Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide's capital Wednesday as rebels threatened to attack and France pressed Aristide to resign.

In a critical setback for Haiti's leader, French officials privately told Aristide that they no longer support him -- and they now back a coalition government without him, a senior official at the French Foreign Ministry told The Herald.

''He does not have our support,'' said the official, who requested anonymity. ``We will now move to support a government of national unity.''

While not officially using the term ''resign,'' the French official said Aristide ``has been advised to step down.''

Meanwhile, in Washington, Paris, the Caribbean and the United Nations, calls mounted for the deployment of international peacekeepers to Haiti.

President Bush said the United States and allies were discussing ''a security presence'' in Haiti, but he predicated that on the acceptance of a settlement between Aristide and his political opponents.

French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin, however, called for ''the immediate establishment of a civilian peacekeeping force'' -- civilian but heavily armed.

The reason for that was growing terribly clear: The human cost of the three-week rebellion reached 80 dead. A suspected Aristide supporter and another man were killed Wednesday by rebels in the northern city of Cap Haitien.

Another leading indicator of the state of affairs: Aristide's wife, Mildred, told CNN that she sent her two young daughters Wednesday to stay with her mother in an undisclosed location in another country. Her mother lives in Broward County.

''The threat is real,'' she said.

In South Florida, the Coast Guard boarded a freighter with 21 Haitians after an incident described by the vessel's captain as an armed hijacking by Haitian police officers and government officials. No injuries were reported and Coast Guard officers took command of the ship Wednesday night seven miles east of Miami.

Bush, speaking earlier in the day at the White House, reiterated that the United States would turn back Haitian refugees. ''We encourage, strongly encourage, the Haitian people to stay home,'' he said.

The rebels' next major objective appeared to be Port-au-Prince, with rebel leader Guy Philippe warning residents on radio Wednesday to stay indoors ``because in a few days Haiti will be free of Aristide.''

Security deteriorated sharply in the capital. The overnight change was startling.

Police watched idly as pro-Aristide militants, wearing black ski masks and armed with guns and stones, swarmed motorists at roadblocks. Some stripped people of handbags and cellphones, and two food and lumber warehouses were looted.

The U.S. Embassy was closed by what American officials called ''gang activity'' and even U.S. Marines would not venture out on the streets to escort 110 departing U.N. dependents to the airport.

''The U.S. Embassy recommended that we postpone,'' said Christian do Rosario, a U.N. official. ``It's too dangerous.''

Most of the dozens of barricades, constructed from burning tires, large rocks and wrecked vehicles, were erected and guarded by militant Aristide supporters called chimres, after a mythical dragon.

The gangs poured out of the slums early in the day, roaming the streets aboard battered pickup trucks with pistols, shotguns and automatic weapons in hand and fingers close to the trigger.

''We are helping the police,'' said Bily Prezidan, one of four bosses who control Cité Soleil, a shantytown of about 250,000 people largely loyal to Aristide. ``My mission is to clean Port-au-Prince so that the population is not scared of the rebels.''

The usually bustling city came to a near halt as public transportation disappeared. But no signs emerged of the rebels who, in just three weeks, have thrust Aristide's forces out of most of northern and central Haiti.

As disorder spread, the international community began rousing into action. Paris seemed particularly determined to send in peacekeepers.

''This force would be charged with assuring the restoration of public order,'' de Villepin said in a statement critical of Aristide, hinting that he should resign and mentioning early elections.

''As far as President Aristide is concerned, he bears grave responsibility for the current situation,'' de Villepin said. ``It's his decision, it's his responsibility.''

At the United Nations, the Security Council scheduled an emergency meeting today to consider a request by Jamaican Prime Minister P.J. Patterson, chairman of the 15-member Caribbean Community, that a U.N.-led peacekeeping force be sent to Haiti.

The Organization of American States also planned to discuss the crisis today.

Hundreds of Haitian refugees have landed in recent weeks in Jamaica and the Turks and Caicos Islands. During the Haitian crisis of 1991-1994, 67,000 refugees headed to the United States.

U.S. officials have said they do not expect a new exodus, but Assistant Secretary of State Roger Noriega told Florida lawmakers Wednesday that 300 to 500 Haitians had taken to the sea since Sunday.

''That is reason for alarm,'' said Rep. Mark Foley, a Republican from Palm Beach County.

Herald staff writers Marika Lynch in Port-au-Prince, Susannah A. Nesmith in Cap Haitien, Frank Davies in Washington, Jacqueline Charles, Gail Epstein Nieves and Luisa Yanez in Miami and Stuart Stogel at the United Nations contributed to this report.