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Bush presses aristide to quit { February 29 2004 }

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Bush presses Aristide to quit

By Mike Williams, Palm Beach Post-Cox News Service
Sunday, February 29, 2004

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti -- An uneasy state of near-calm returned to the capital Saturday after a rebel leader said he would delay his final assault for a few days and President Jean-Bertrand Aristide called for an end to the bedlam that erupted a day earlier.

"We condemn that," Aristide said of Friday's looting, speaking in an early-morning address on national television. "When it's not good, we have to say it's not good."

The appeal came after the U.S. Embassy issued a sharp rebuke of the violence by Aristide's supporters, saying they had begun to "burn, pillage and kill" in a rampage that left the capital in anarchy.

"We urgently call upon President Aristide to issue the necessary instructions so his supporters stop this violence," U.S. Ambassador James Foley said, adding that Aristide's "honor, legacy and reputation are now at stake."

Saturday night, President Bush dramatically increased the pressure on Aristide to resign, authorizing a White House statement that the crisis "is largely of Aristide's making" and adding that "his own actions have called into question his fitness to continue to govern."

Earlier in the day, senior administration officials said the United States did not want to appear to be pushing an elected leader out of office. But after a meeting of Bush's senior national security advisers Saturday morning -- run by teleconference from Camp David by Condoleezza Rice, the national security adviser -- the president concluded that Washington's strong hints to Aristide that he needed to resign must be escalated to a strong shove.

During the meeting, officials said, Bush's advisers concluded that the rebel forces that are holding in position outside the city were unlikely to stay there for long. "If they go in and Aristide is still sitting there, it's not going to be pretty," a senior official said Saturday evening. "So the conclusion was that the only way to get to a political solution was to exert more pressure, an evolution of what we've been doing all week."

Rebels asked to wait

Although the U.S. has made no direct contact with the rebels, Foley asked rebels to halt their steady advance -- reportedly now within a few dozen miles of the capital -- to spare the city further violence.

Rebel leader Guy Philippe said he had seen the U.S. appeal on the Internet Saturday, and would comply.

"We always give peace a chance here, so we'll wait to see for one or two days," he told The Associated Press in the northern city of Cap-Haitien, which his forces captured a week ago. "We will keep on sending troops, but we won't attack Port-au-Prince until we understand what the U.S. means."

The apparent respite came after a day of bloody chaos in the capital.

The normally jammed streets were nearly deserted Friday, and gangs of armed men, some wearing masks, raced around the city in pickup trucks, robbing pedestrians, hijacking cars and threatening any who came in their way. Police were nowhere to be seen, and at least 25 bodies were reported taken to the main hospital of the sprawling city of 2 million, some possibly killed by looters, others with hands bound behind their backs, apparent victims of execution-style political killings.

The armed gangs were still out in force Saturday, but so were police, although their numbers were still small.

"I am here to protect the people," said a lone officer stationed in the heart of downtown, his khaki uniform shirt and snap-brim hat spotless as he directed traffic on Dessalines Boulevard. Other squads of police made the rounds in pickups, although some vehicles with police markings carried armed men who wore no uniforms.

A march by about 3,000 Aristide supporters downtown was peaceful and orderly.

But there was still open, unchallenged looting at the city's port, a scene of bedlam on Friday. Clumps of people scrambled through gates to get inside warehouses holding imported goods, with dozens -- perhaps hundreds -- filing past on their way out, arms loaded and heads balancing boxes of frozen food, linens, furniture, television sets and anything else they could lay their hands on.

One man calmly strode down La Saline Boulevard pushing a rusty wheelbarrow overflowing with slaughtered pig parts, water dripping steadily as the frozen meat thawed in the muggy air.

A convoy of journalists pulled up to view the scene, only to be confronted by angry youths who shouted, waved their arms and pulled at one photographer's equipment. The journalists quickly left.

Elsewhere, traffic was extremely light, but thousands of pedestrians braved the streets, and a few vendors cautiously spread their wares on sidewalks. One large market area near downtown appeared jammed with tens of thousands of shoppers.

But fear of the impending rebel attack and the armed gangs still hung in the air. Most gas stations remained closed, many now blackened after gangs torched them, and people complained that prices have skyrocketed because of the crisis.

"Prices have doubled for corn and charcoal," the fuel used by most poor Haitians, said Jocelyn Alphonse, a mother of three who balanced on her head a large white sack stuffed with food she had purchased at the market. "The situation is quite grave, but I really can't talk about it."

Death on display

Bolstering the deep sense of fear was the chilling sight of death, openly displayed on the city's streets, just as on Friday.

On a quiet, tree-shaded avenue near the main hospital, just a few blocks from the national palace, pedestrians sidestepped a man's body that lay in the dust.

He wore only dirty gym shorts and tennis shoes, his hands bound by a twisted green garment, possibly his own shirt. Two neat holes pierced the skin of his back just below his left shoulder, both of them surrounded by black powder burns left by a weapon apparently fired at point-blank range.

None of the passersby knew the man's name or why, or even when, his body came to rest there. An hour later it was gone.

While Aristide appealed for calm during the day to allow the city to go back to work, he also said residents should feel free to come out at dusk and re-erect the tangled barricades that have dotted intersections all across the city for days.

The U.S., meanwhile, has already sent 50 Marines to Haiti, but only to help evacuate American citizens and protect U.S. property. On Saturday, some of the Marines were on hand at the Haitian Coast Guard's headquarters, where two U.S. Coast Guard cutters visible in the city's vast bay were scheduled to dock and unload several hundred Haitians picked up at sea in the last week.

More than 330 Haitians, picked up at sea in separate operations, were repatriated Saturday, bringing to 867 the number of Haitians returned in the past week, the Coast Guard said.

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At least 41 die in haiti rebellion
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Bush presses aristide to quit { February 29 2004 }
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France calls for aristide to resign { February 26 2004 }
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