The Washington Post
Sunday, February 22, 2004; Page A01

Aristide Offers To Share Power

Haitian Opposition Demands Resignation

By Peter Slevin and Scott Wilson
Washington Post Staff Writers

Embattled Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide told a U.S.-led delegation yesterday he would share power with his longtime political rivals, but diplomatic efforts to resolve an armed rebellion in Haiti remained stalled by the opposition's demand that Aristide resign.

Aristide declared after two hours of negotiations in the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince that he would support new parliamentary elections and the appointment of a prime minister acceptable to competing factions, even if it meant reducing his own authority.

International diplomats led by Roger F. Noriega, the State Department's chief Latin American specialist, ended their quick mission without an agreement. Political opponents and armed insurgents, angered by years of authoritarian rule insisted that Aristide leave office -- a step the populist leader reiterated that he would not take.

"We cannot accept this plan without the departure of Aristide," opposition figure Rosemond Tradel told reporters during a break in negotiations. "If we accept the plan without the departure of Aristide, we are going to disappear as an opposition."

Aristide's political opponents, asking for time to consider the proposals, said they would meet today and deliver their formal response on Monday. It remained unclear how rebel leaders in northern Haiti would react.

"While we did not get a yes, we did not get a no," Fred Mitchell, foreign minister of the Bahamas, told reporters after meeting with opposition leaders.

Aristide, restored to the presidency in 1994 with U.S. military support, insisted again yesterday that he would not leave office before his current five-year term expires in 2006. He also said he would not "go ahead with terrorists," referring to the insurgents who have attacked police stations and staged uprisings in more than a dozen towns in northern Haiti. The armed rebellion has paralyzed parts of the country and left dozens dead in the past 17 days.

The Bush administration, participating directly at a high level for the first time in the current crisis, has said it does not intend to force Aristide from power. But officials have said privately that they would not be sorry to see him go if his departure contributed to a fresh start for the hemisphere's poorest nation.

As violence continued, the State Department yesterday ordered the evacuation of all relatives of U.S. embassy workers in Haiti, as well as all personnel considered non-essential. Remaining staff members have been ordered by U.S. authorities to stay indoors from 8 p.m. until 6 a.m.

The State Department said it "strongly urges American citizens to depart the country immediately. Americans are reminded of the potential for spontaneous demonstrations and violent confrontations between pro- and anti-government supporters, students and other groups."

Violence that erupted on Feb. 5 poses the gravest threat to Aristide's government since the former Catholic priest was reelected to the presidency in 2000. Although the armed insurrection has not spread to the capital, events in the north have coincided with demonstrations by more moderate political forces in Port-au-Prince. The uprising is showing signs of coalescing into a national movement.

Aristide, who has promised previously to start reforms and open his administration to the opposition, has repeatedly disappointed supporters at home and abroad. His most recent pledge came during a Jan. 31 meeting of Caribbean leaders who assembled in search of a way out of the deepening crisis.

In fact, Aristide said he would accept a package similar to the one he endorsed yesterday. He agreed to name opposition members to his cabinet, disarm Haiti's politicized street gangs, and better protect anti-government demonstrations from his own hard-line partisans, who have used violence to intimidate perceived rivals.

The proposal advanced Saturday by officials from the United States, Canada, France and the Caribbean would require Aristide to replace his trusted prime minister, Yvon Neptune, with a more independent figure. Neptune's successor would be chosen by a broad-based group of advisers.

If the arrangement works, new parliamentary elections would be held under international supervision. After 2000 elections, which foreign monitors considered fraudulent, the opposing sides were unable to agree on conditions for voting. Most parliamentary terms expired in January and Aristide has been ruling by decree ever since.

Yesterday's diplomatic mission was a public demonstration of the Bush administration's support for the plan. Noriega, assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, was dispatched from Washington to lead the talks.

Given Aristide's election by popular vote, the proposal gives the opposition few options but to take its place in a power-sharing government or else lose credibility as a democratic movement. "The Haitians have to come up with a political solution," Secretary of State Colin L. Powell told Knight Ridder Newspapers on Thursday. He said the opposition must recognize that whatever their legitimate complaints, "they will not be dealt with if they fall in league -- or get under the umbrella -- with thugs, murderers."

In the past week, the links between the foot soldiers and a more seasoned leadership have been clarified with the return from exile of several shadowy former members of Haiti's military who bring training in strategy and tactics. Some received U.S. military training upon entering the ranks of Haiti's National Police Force, created by the United States after the 1994 invasion.

Among most prominent of the returning anti-Aristide exiles is Guy Philippe, the former police chief of Cap-Haitien. Philippe crossed into Haiti from the Dominican Republic last week, and has now aligned himself and several hundred gunmen with the armed group in Gonaives.

Philippe, who received police training in the United States, fled Haiti in 2000 after he was implicated in a coup attempt meant to prevent Aristide from taking office in February 2001. He was later tied to a December 2001 attack on the National Palace, which was repelled and set off a wave of political violence carried out in large part by pro-Aristide groups in the capital.

As the armed groups continue to carry out hit-and-run strikes in the north, Philippe has vowed to march on Cap-Haitien, the country's second largest city, which is now being policed largely by armed pro-Aristide gangs that have cowed much of the population.

Several other former members of Haiti's military have returned from exile to take the central plateau city of Hinche, a gateway to the Dominican Republic. The scattered groups appear to be uniting under the name the umbrella group, the Haitian Liberation Front.

Gaining in confidence and organization, the armed groups have largely marginalized the coalition of business associations, university students, and human rights groups that has been marching in the capital for months demanding Aristide's resignation.

Leaders of the civic opposition have denied any ties to the insurrection, and even condemned the violence as the armed groups have gained momentum.

Wilson reported from Bogota.

© 2004