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Military Leaders Deal Blow to Haiti Settlement : Crisis: Junta balks at agreeing to plan that restores Aristide to power. Envoy leaves without 'clear answer.'

April 17, 1993|KENNETH FREED | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Chances of a negotiated settlement of Haiti's destructive political and economic crisis were seriously set back Friday when the country's ruling military men refused to give in to international pressure and agree immediately to resign and permit ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide to return.

The development dealt a blow to the U.S. policy here and to special U.N. envoy Dante Caputo, who had said the army must agree to his settlement proposal by Friday or face serious punishment.

Caputo, a former Argentine foreign minister, was appointed four months ago to negotiate an end to the crisis that began Sept. 19, 1991, when the army under Lt. Gen. Raoul Cedras overthrew Aristide, Haiti's first democratically elected chief executive.

Caputo ended this latest three-day visit, his fifth trip here, without "a clear answer" to his proposal, leaving the situation at least as muddled as when he arrived.

Caputo was "asking for a yes or no," officials had said Thursday night after Cedras canceled a meeting with the U.N. envoy in which the general had been expected to agree to Caputo's proposed settlement. One official close to the talks said that any other answer, even a counterproposal, would be considered "a no" by Caputo.

And anything less than "a yes," the official added, would bring quick international reprisals.

But as the time neared for Caputo to board his New York-bound plane, the military again canceled scheduled meetings and sent an answer described by officials as "not clear at all."

In a rushed departure statement at the airport, Caputo underscored the inconclusive state of affairs. "It is a quite complicated situation, but with resolve and a spirit of cooperation we can arrive at an end of this crisis and find a solution," he said. "Unfortunately, we have not received a positive reply."

The army's approach was a classic Haitian tactic--appearing to negotiate but, in the end, simply stonewalling in expectation that the other side will either return with a more conciliatory plan or give up altogether.

Caputo, who had said there would be no further offers or talks, backed down when faced with actually carrying out such an ultimatum. Instead, he said he would return to New York for consultations with U.N. officials, Aristide and the Clinton Administration.

Even the talk of serious reprisals seemed to dissolve into irresolution.

In the two weeks leading up to Friday's disappointment, an expectation of foreign military intervention, particularly by the United States, grew with a Clinton Administration announcement that a small contingent of U.S. troops might be sent here.

In addition, U.S. military officials had suggested forming a regional force for use in Haiti, and rumors were spread that U.S. Navy vessels might be stationed off the coast and U.S. warplanes sent to fly over Port-au-Prince.

As late as Thursday night, Caputo was described as feeling that if he failed to get a breakthrough, he "would like something (in the way of a reaction) to happen within two days."

But officials close to the talks said Friday that there would not be a military intervention and perhaps not even increased economic sanctions to strengthen an existing trade embargo that has been more noteworthy for weakness than effectiveness.

The failure appeared to deflate the otherwise confident Caputo and drove the U.S. Embassy into embattled silence.

Charles Redman, a senior State Department official sent here by President Clinton, had been in constant contact with Caputo and had several times dealt directly with the military to try to convince them of U.S. seriousness about restoring Aristide to office.

He previously had told reporters that "this is a deadly serious process which we are going to force through to a conclusion."

But when reporters asked for embassy comment or guidance following Caputo's departure, Redman refused to even take questions, leaving his press aide to say, "No comment."

The gist of the proposed settlement, which Caputo and Redman had thought was all but accepted by Cedras, called for the resignation of the military high command and the return of Aristide by July 1.

In return, Aristide would permit a blanket amnesty for Cedras and other military figures involved in the coup.

There also would be a large international aid offering, a U.S. military training and rehabilitation program for Haiti's 7,000-man army and an end to the regional economic embargo.

The army made no public comment about its actions, although sources close to the military said Cedras and the high command were not satisfied with Aristide's position on amnesty.

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