Haitian first democratically elected president resigns
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Posted on Sun, Feb. 29, 2004
Haitian President Aristide resigns, seeks asylum; U.S. troops soon to be deployed
By NANCY SAN MARTIN, TRENTON DANIEL AND MARTIN MERZER
PORT-AU-PRINCE -- President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, under pressure from a growing rebellion and abandoned by foreign governments, resigned from office Sunday, left Haiti and is seeking asylum abroad, according to U.S., Haitian and French officials.
Angry crowds of Aristide supporters began massing at the presidential National Palace in Port-au-Prince, though the city remained relatively calm. In the northern city of Cap Haitien, which fell to the rebels last week, gleeful crowds danced in the streets.
U.S. Ambassador James Foley said international peacekeeping forces, including U.S. troops, soon would be deployed. At 10 a.m. Sunday, officials at the Miami-based Southern Command said no orders had yet arrived.
''President Aristide made a decision for the good of the Haitian people,'' Foley said during a news conference. ``International military forces, including U.S. forces, will be rapidly arriving in Haiti to begin to restore a sense of security.''
Haitian Supreme Court Chief Justice Boniface Alexandre said he was taking power. ''I assume it because the constitution indicates it,'' Alexandre said during a news conference.
Aristide and his wife, Mildred, flew out of Port-au-Prince's airport at 6:45 a.m., accompanied by a security detail. Their ultimate destination was not known, though Panama, South Africa and Morocco were mentioned as possibilities.
Prime Minister Yvon Neptune said Aristide, Haiti's first democratically elected president in 200 years of independence, signed a letter of resignation and left Haiti to ``prevent bloodshed.''
Reading from what he described as the resignation letter, Neptune quoted Aristide as saying: ``The constitution must not be written with the blood of the Haitian people. If my resignation prevents the shedding of blood, I agree to leave.''
Alexandre urged Haitians to refrain from further violence.
''The task will not be an easy one,'' Alexandre said. ``Haiti is in crisis . . .. It needs all its sons and daughters. No one should take justice into their own hands.''
Rebel leader Guy Philippe has said that Alexandre would be acceptable to him.
Early reports said Aristide's plane landed briefly at Barahona airport, in southwest Dominican Republic. Officials of that nation said Aristide had not requested asylum there.
Other, unconfirmed reports said Aristide's plane later refueled in Antigua and could be en route to Morocco, but Morocco's foreign ministry said it would not grant asylum to him.
''The kingdom of Morocco does not intend to respond favorably to any eventual request for political asylum by President Aristide,'' the ministry said in a statement.
On Saturday, a high-ranking French official told The Herald that Panama was willing to offer asylum to Aristide.
More than three hours after Aristide fled, the U.S. Southern Command still had not received an order to dispatch troups to the troubled Caribbean nation.
''We are still looking at possible options and we're waiting for direction from Washington. We have no deployment,'' said Army Col. David McWilliams, spokesman for the Pentagon's headquarters for military operations in the Caribbean.
Several dozen Marines dispatched on Monday were ''continuing to provide security for U.S. protection and property and personnel in Haiti,'' McWilliams said.
The developments came as rebels closed in on Port-au-Prince. After swiftly ousting government forces from nearly all of northern and central Haiti, they were massing within 25 miles of the tense capital.
More than 100 people have been killed in the violence and hundreds of Haitians have taken to the sea, trying to reach Florida and other safe havens. Most have been picked up by the U.S. Coast Guard and returned to Haiti.
The Bush administration said it welcomed Aristide's departure and it was in the best interests of Haiti.
It was the second time that Aristide left office under pressure.
First elected president in 2000, Aristide was ousted in 1991 by a military coup but was restored to power in 1994 after the United States sent 20,000 troops to Haiti. A close associate became president in 1996 and Aristide won reelection in 2000.
But he soon came under heavy criticism, with critics charging that he authorized violence against his political opponents, condoned rigged legislative elections and proved ineffective in improving living standards for residents of the hemisphere's poorest nation.
This time, Aristide was cornered by a rebellion that began Feb. 5 and left him in control of little more than the capital of Port-au-Prince, which has been roiled by violence and looting in recent days.
Late Saturday, the White House increased the pressure on Aristide, whose rule has been marked by violence, corruption and poverty.
''This long-simmering crisis is largely of Mr. Aristide's making,'' said White House press secretary Scott McClellan. ``His failure to adhere to democratic principles has contributed to the deep polarization and violent unrest that we are witnessing in Haiti today.''
McClellan said Aristide's actions ``have called into question his fitness to continue to govern.''
''We urge him to examine his position carefully, to accept responsibility and to act in the best interests of the people of Haiti,'' he said.
Saying that Aristide ruled the militant supporters who inflicted death and pain on the capital, French officials for the first time called without equivocation for his resignation.
They said Panama was willing to grant him asylum. Panamanian officials said they would consider such a request.
''The time has come, Aristide must go. He must resign,'' a senior official at the French Foreign Ministry told The Herald on Saturday.
Ira Kurzban, a spokesman for Aristide in Miami, said he believed U.S. intelligence agencies were involved in the ouster.
He claimed that that one rebel leader on the island -- Louis Jodel Chamblain, leader of a notoriously brutal paramilitary group that supported Haiti's 1991-1994 military dictatorship -- likely worked for the CIA.
''This was a major operation by the intelligence agencies of the U.S.,'' Kurzban said. ``Eventually, the truth will come out.''
In the hours after Aristide left the country, the U.S. Coast Guard continued its watch for boatloads of fleeing Haitians -- but had no indications of mass migration.
''Apparently, Haitians are remaining home in Haiti, and that is a good thing,'' said Luis Diaz, a Coast Guard spokesman in Miami. ``We are urging people not to take to the sea in overcrowded, poorly constructed vessels for a journey that could end their lives. That is a recipe for disaster.''
The Coast Guard has beefed up its resources along the 600 mile stretch between Haiti and the U.S. amid the increasing chaos in that country, Diaz said.
''We have increased our presence over the last few days,'' he said. ``We want to ensure that anyone who has taken to the seas can be rescued. Things are rapidly changing.''
Herald staff writers Tere Figueras, David Ovalle, Renato Perez and Carol Rosenberg contributed to this report.