U.S. cool to France's Haitian move

Posted in United States , Other , Latin America | 18-Feb-04 | Author: Brian Knowlton| Source: International Herald Tribune

Powell sees 'no enthusiasm' for emergency intervention

WASHINGTON - As France weighed an emergency intervention in increasingly chaotic Haiti, Secretary of State Colin Powell called Tuesday for dialogue among opposing forces there but said that "there is frankly no enthusiasm" now for sending armed peacekeepers.

A scattered uprising against President Jean-Bertrand Aristide has claimed more than 50 lives and pried control of large northern areas, including the major city of Hinche, from government troops.

Saying, "Blood has flowed in Hinche," Aristide pleaded Monday for international help.

The French foreign minister, Dominique de Villepin, convened a "crisis group" in Paris on Tuesday to examine how best to help the former French colony.

Saying that Haiti was "in a catastrophic situation" and "on the edge of chaos," Villepin told a radio interviewer that France was conferring with its UN partners "to see what can be done urgently."

The options, he suggested, ranged from providing emergency aid to deploying a peacekeeping force, probably drawing from the approximately 4,000 French troops at Caribbean bases on Guadeloupe and Martinique.

But Powell, noting that he had spoken earlier in the day with Villepin, and last week with representatives of the Organization of American States and of the regional Caribbean Community, said that there was "no enthusiasm right now for sending in military or police forces."

He told reporters at the State Department that he would like to see a political solution reached through dialogue, as favored by Caricom, before any security force is sent in.

At that point, Powell said, "there are willing nations that would come forward with a police presence to implement the political agreement." He did not name them.

Powell called urgently on Aristide to open such a dialogue - the Haitian leader has said he supports Caricom's trust-building plan - but pointedly rejected the notion raised by some in Washington that the former parish priest should be forced to step down.

"We cannot buy into a proposition that says the elected president must be forced out of office by thugs" and those "bringing terrible violence to the Haitian people."

Aristide, in an interview Monday with The New York Times, remained defiant in the face of the uprising and said that he alone could prevent civil war.

Haiti's first democratically elected leader, he was ousted in a 1991 coup before being returned to power three years later by a 20,000-strong U.S. force sent to Haiti.

Aristide has found himself increasingly embattled since 2000, however, when Haitian opposition parties boycotted a presidential election following parliamentary elections deemed flawed by outside observers.

Once revered by millions of poor Haitians, Aristide is now accused by critics of having done far too little to help the poor, of having links to militant gangs, and of repressing opposition groups.

In the newspaper interview, Aristide vowed to leave office only on Feb. 7, 2006.

Villepin, speaking Tuesday to France Inter radio, rhetorically raised the possibility of sending a "peace force." He said: "We want to think about what could be done in this emergency situation. Could a peace force be deployed? We are in contact with all of our partners in the framework of the United Nations."

Referring to France's overseas territories in the Caribbean, he said: "We have important assets close to Haiti. We have skills in the field of humanitarian interventions."

About 2,000 French citizens live in Haiti. As humanitarian organizations stepped up their aid efforts, the group Doctors Without Borders said it was sending 16 tons of medical equipment.

The Bush administration has sent mixed messages about its support for Aristide, but Powell's defense of the embattled leader seemed clear.

"He is right now the free and fairly elected president of Haiti," Powell said.

A week earlier, Richard Boucher, the State Department spokesman, had said that "reaching a political settlement will require some fairly thorough changes in the way Haiti is governed."

The same day, a senior State Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that while the administration wanted to see the Haitian crisis resolved through dialogue, it might support replacing Aristide. "When we talk about undergoing change in the way Haiti is governed, I think that could indeed involve changes in Aristide's position," the official told reporters.

"We have had 32 coups in our history," he said. "The result is what we have now: moving from misery to poverty. We need not continue moving from one coup d'état to another coup d'état, but from one elected president to another elected president."

Asked whether he would consider stepping aside to prevent further bloodshed in a conflict that has paralyzed much of the country, he replied: "I will leave office Feb. 7, 2006. My responsibility is precisely to prevent that from happening."

He called for armed opposition groups to lay down their weapons and for political opponents to begin discussions with the aim of having new parliamentary elections as soon as possible.

"It is time for us to stop the violence and to implement the Caricom proposal for elections," Aristide said, referring to that organization's plan to build trust between the government and opposition groups as part of the groundwork for new parliamentary elections.

Former Aristide supporters control Gonaïves, a major city on the main north-south highway between the capital and Cap Haitien, the country's second largest city.

A crisis looms in the arid north, where more than 250,000 people need food assistance to survive.

The flawed elections in 2000 led to the suspension of $500 million in international aid, an act Aristide refers to as an "economic embargo," and he blames this suspension for his failure to transform Haiti's economy, health and education.

"I don't say I am the best," Aristide said. "But think of what I did with nothing in terms of financial resources."