Aristide, vowing not to quit, presses peace plan

Posted in Other , Latin America | 25-Feb-04 | Author: Tony Smith| Source: International Herald Tribune

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti President Jean-Bertrand Aristide said Tuesday that he would not give in to rebel demands to step down, and he appealed to opposition leaders to accept a proposed plan that would stop the rebel advance on the capital and avoid further bloodshed. U.S. Marines manned positions Tuesday to secure the U.S. Embassy, having arrived in Haiti on Monday after rebels consolidated their control of the island's second-largest city, Cap-Haïtien, over the weekend. Government ministers began casting about for secure hiding places, and others vowed to repel the insurgent advance.

"If they come to Port-au-Prince, you will have thousands of people killed," Aristide said, speaking calmly at a news conference in the presidential palace. "I would like to see them neutralized rather than have that bloodshed."

Aristide called on the international community to accelerate carrying out a plan to reinforce Haiti's police force, and he called on Haitian citizens to defend the city in case of attack.

Haitian opposition leaders have told Secretary of State Colin Powell that they are having a hard time committing to the proposed power-sharing agreement, which has been accepted in principle by Aristide. The problem, they say, is that they would lose the respect of their supporters by allowing Aristide to continue in office, even in a titular role.

Political opposition leaders in Port-au-Prince on Monday took 24 hours to examine a peace plan presented by the Bush administration and its allies.

"I expect my brothers from the opposition today to give a positive answer which will create a good bridge between the government and the opposition," Aristide said.

"It is time for the opposition to stop the violence and share some responsibility," he said. Men who were dressed in civilian clothes manned makeshift barricades on the streets of the Haitian capital. searching cars but letting them pass through. Aristide read a list of towns in the north of Haiti that had fallen, confirming the fall of Port-de-Paix.

Looting in Port-de-Paix

Looting erupted as soon as the rebels moved into Port-de-Paix during the night, local radio reports said Tuesday, according to Agence France-Presse.

Several buildings were set ablaze in the city, which has a population of about 120,000 people. The reports did not give casualty figures.

Rebels led by Guy Philippe, a former police commissioner, now control half the country. The three-week-old insurgency has left at least 70 dead.

In an interview with Radio France Internationale, Philippe reaffirmed Tuesday that the aim of his force was to "liberate Port-au-Prince." He said that so far the rebel advance has been "too easy."

Police and armed pro-Aristide gangs have erected barricades on roads outside Port-au-Prince to prevent the rebels from advancing from the north of the country, much of which is now in their control.

Port-de-Paix is the nearest port to the U.S. coast and Aristide said the fall of the city could unleash a flood of boat people.

Dozens are already reported to have arrived in Jamaica.

Aristide told a news conference, "I want Haitians to stay in Haiti so they can vote in elections, maybe before next November."

Powell's conference call with Aristide's political foes was the latest in a series of increasingly intense international efforts to convince the opposition to accept the power-sharing plan.

Diplomats say it is the only way to prevent a full scale armed rebellion.

If an agreement is reached, diplomats have pledged to accelerate commitments to improve security in the country by deploying an "international security presence" that could help in facing down the insurgency.

In addition, the United Nations and the Organization of American States would also train and supervise a revamped Haitian police force, which would disarm pro-Aristide gangs responsible for repeated attacks on the opposition and journalists.

President Jacques Chirac of France said he did not rule out France contributing to a peace force in Haiti.

Speaking in Budapest, Chirac called for negotiations to end the insurrection.

France's foreign minister, Dominique de Villepin, said he was to meet Haitian opposition leaders in Paris to discuss prospects for ending the violence.

"We are in a race against time to stop the violence, which is continually growing," de Villepin told Radio France Internationale.

Leave Haiti, Britons advised

The Foreign Office on Tuesday advised Britons to leave Haiti, The Associated Press reported from London.

The Foreign Office, which has been advising against all travel to the Caribbean island nation since Feb. 13, said Haiti was in a "highly volatile security situation."