Ex-leader's bodyguards detail flight
BY FRANK DAVIES, NANCY SAN MARTIN AND MICHAEL A.W. OTTEY
WASHINGTON - A slew of U.S. officials and a bodyguard firm Monday vehemently denied claims by former Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide that he was ''kidnapped'' and forced into exile by U.S. soldiers.
Aristide's first day in exile in the Central African Republic was as contentious as his four-year rule, as he and two U.S. House members who support him alleged that he was physically forced to leave Haiti.
''Absolutely false,'' Luis Moreno, the U.S. Embassy official in Haiti who accompanied Aristide to the airport Sunday, told The Herald.
Secretary of State Colin Powell called the allegations ''absolutely baseless, absurd.'' ''Nonsense,'' White House spokesman Scott McClellan said.
And Ken Kurtz, chief executive of The Steele Foundation, the San Francisco security company that provided bodyguards to Aristide, said they protected him all the way to Africa.
''We were with him throughout the process,'' Kurtz told The Herald. ``I can assure you he was definitely not kidnapped.''
The secrecy surrounding Aristide's departure from Port-au-Prince and lack of witnesses helped fuel suspicions, which were amplified by daylong cable TV debates about what happened.
`FORCED TO LEAVE'
Aristide alleged in telephone interviews Monday with CNN and The Associated Press that he was ''forced to leave'' Haiti by U.S. military forces who said they would ''start shooting and killing'' if he refused.
''I was forced to leave,'' he said. ``They were telling me that if I don't leave they would start shooting.''
When asked who ''they'' were, he responded, ''White American, white military.'' He added: ``They came at night. . . . There were too many. I couldn't count them.''
Aristide said that he signed a resignation letter out of fear that violence would erupt in Haiti if he didn't comply with the demands of ''American security agents,'' and alleged the letter was later altered.
A man who claimed to be a caretaker to Aristide said U.S. soldiers ''forced [Aristide] out with weapons,'' the Agence France-Presse reported.
Reps. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., and Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., and former TransAfrica head Randall Robinson echoed Aristide's claims after talking to him earlier Monday.
''He said he was taken at gunpoint,'' Robinson told The Herald.
But Moreno, deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Port-au-Prince, denied the allegations in a highly unusual on-the-record interview that underscored Washington's anger over the claims.
Moreno said he showed up at Aristide's home in the Tabarre section of the capital between 4 and 4:30 a.m. Sunday, accompanied by six embassy security officers -- not Marines -- to escort the president to the airport.
Aristide already had told Washington that he would resign and had his bags packed. ''He knew why I was there,'' said Moreno, adding that they spoke in Spanish.
Aristide told Moreno he would give him his letter of resignation when they arrived at the airport. Aristide got in his car with his wife and their own security forces, and Moreno followed in another car with the U.S. detail.
It was a convoy of seven cars -- four belonging to Aristide and three with Moreno. ''He had quite a few security guys,'' Moreno said.
About 20 minutes before the plane arrived, Moreno tapped on Aristide's window and asked for the letter of resignation, Moreno said. Aristide reached into his wife's purse and handed him the letter.
Kurtz said Aristide's bodyguards -- most of them veterans of the U.S. Special Forces and the State Department's VIP security details -- would not have left the president's side even if ordered to do so by the U.S. government or Marines.
''We would stop that from happening,'' Kurtz said. ``Our mission is to protect the president from embarrassment, from kidnapping or assassination. We take direction only from the president, so anything that happened would have happened only because of his direction.''
Kurtz declined to say whether the American bodyguards were still with Aristide in Africa. He said the Haitian government, not Aristide, had hired the company to provide security for other Haitian leaders, including former President René Preval.
Powell denied Aristide's charges at a news conference, saying that he was ''intimately involved'' in the discussions overnight Saturday that led to Aristide's departure. Aristide asked U.S. Ambassador James Foley a series of questions about security and destinations, and eventually decided to leave.
''He said it was his decision, based on what his security people were also telling him about the deteriorating situation, that he should leave,'' Powell said. ``We made arrangements for his departure. He wrote a letter of resignation.
''We did not force him onto the airplane. He went onto the airplane willingly, and that's the truth,'' added Powell, who criticized the members of Congress for conveying the allegations without checking with the State Department.
Other officials, and some of Aristide's advisors, said the president reached his decision because U.S., French and Canadian leaders had urged him to step down, and his security forces were uneasy about possible rebel attacks.
SHIFT IN VIEW
In Port-au-Prince, U.S. Embassy spokeswoman Judith Trunzo said that Aristide signed a letter of resignation, urging peace.
Trunzo said that Aristide has a history of contradictory statements and shifting decisions. ''It's quite possible that as he took that long plane ride, he decided to change his tactic,'' she said.
Moreno, who has known Aristide for a decade, described their conversations early Sunday as ''amicable, but somber.'' He said at no time was there any pressure nor was Aristide physically forced to flee.
Moreno said he told Aristide that it was too bad he had to abandon his presidency. He said Aristide responded in English: ``Sometimes, life goes like that.''
Herald staff writers Martin Merzer, Jim DeFede and Oscar Corral and special correspondent Renato Pérez contributed to this report.