The New York Times
March 2, 2004
Aristide, in Central African Republic, Has Harsh Words for Rebels

OHANNESBURG, March 1 Newly arrived in the impoverished Central African Republic, Haiti's ex-president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, on Monday blasted the rebels who ousted him from power on Sunday, saying that "in overthrowing me, they have chopped down the tree of peace, but it will grow again."

Government radio in Bangui, the republic's capital, said that Mr. Aristide was being accommodated only for a few days, probably until he received permanent asylum in South Africa.

But South African officials gave mixed signals as to their willingness to take in Mr. Aristide. Domestic critics of President Thabo Mbeki, one of Mr. Aristide's few international supporters, excoriated the government for even considering it.

Mr. Aristide's aircraft landed shortly after dawn in Bangui after a 13-hour overnight trip from Port-au-Prince, Haiti's capital.

In a brief radio statement after his arrival, he portrayed himself as a victim of power struggles in his homeland, and predicted the return of popular rule in the tradition of Toussaint Louverture, the father of Haiti's independence movement two centuries ago.

But in Port-au-Prince, news reports stated that thousands of people clogged the streets to cheer triumphant rebels entering the city.

Mr. Aristide's future was unclear. In Bangui, Agence France-Presse quoted government officials as saying that he had been given temporary refuge as a humane gesture in recognition of Haiti's status as the world's first black-ruled republic. But they did not say how long Mr. Aristide would be permitted to stay, or where he would go next.

It was widely reported that Mr. Aristide had already sought refuge in South Africa, whose president is one of his few international supporters, but had been rebuffed for fear of the political consequences.

On Monday South African officials said that Mr. Aristide had made no formal request for asylum in South Africa, and gave no clear signal of whether such a request would be granted were it to be made.

In a midday news conference, South Africa's deputy foreign minister, Aziz Pahad, said that the foreign minister, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, was discussing asylum, and that "in principle, we would have no problem" in granting Mr. Aristide refuge.

But a Foreign Ministry spokesman, Ronnie Mamoepa, later insisted that no preliminary decision on granting asylum to Mr. Aristide had been made, and that any final decision would turn on discussions among President Mbeki's cabinet, Haiti's neighbors and key Western powers like France and the United States.

In fact, domestic politics may play a pivotal role in South Africa's decision whether to admit Mr. Aristide. A nationwide election for Parliament and local government seats is barely 45 days away, and a quick decision to grant refuge to Mr. Aristide could bolster opposition politicians' charges that President Mbeki has a soft spot for internationally shunned dictators.

Mr. Mbeki already is under sustained attack for his friendship with Robert G. Mugabe, the autocratic Zimbabwean leader who is accused of plunging his nation into privation and repressive rule. Reports last week, relying on Iraqi newspapers' publication of documents recovered from state archives, tied Mr. Mbeki's ruling African National Congress to potentially illicit oil deals with Iraq in 2001.

African National Congress officials have denied wrongdoing, but have yet to rebut the accusations or to deny that they traveled to Baghdad at the time the oil deals were struck.

On Monday, opposition political parties seized on rumors that Mr. Aristide might end up in South Africa to accuse the government of debasing the nation's human-rights record.

"Mr. Mbeki's best friends are people like Mugabe and Tariq Aziz and Saddam Hussein," said Douglas Gibson, the chief parliamentary whip for the Democratic Alliance, South Africa's second-ranking party. "For God's sake can't we find some friends who will do some foreign investment in South Africa so we can create jobs for the 8 million people who are unemployed?"

Mr. Gibson said that France, the United States or Canada should be willing to give Mr. Aristide refuge and that, were they not willing, South Africa had no more compelling reason to grant him asylum.

The new Independent Democratic Party, which portrays itself as a force battling a corrupt and entrenched government, said Mr. Mbeki's friendships with autocrats were devaluing South Africa's international standing.

Almost alone among global leaders, Mr. Mbeki has been close to Mr. Aristide, donating roughly $1.5 million in South African currency to underwrite Haiti's bicentennial celebration two months ago. Mr. Mbeki attended the festivities in Port-au-Price, accompanied by a security contingent that included a helicopter, a South African warship and a squadron of guards.

The visit turned into an embarrassment when anti-Aristide forces rioted and a gun battle broke out during the celebrations, forcing Mr. Mbeki to leave. A visit to Gonaïves was canceled when a South African helicopter was fired on during a security sweep in advance of Mr. Mbeki's arrival.