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Fears About Assassination of Aristide Trouble U.S.


WASHINGTON — A recurring nightmare haunts Clinton Administration officials laboring to make Haiti a functioning democracy--that exiled President Jean-Bertrand Aristide will return to the Caribbean nation Saturday and be cut down by an assassin's bullet, plunging the country into a bloody civil war.

"The first thing we have to do is to get Aristide back and keep him alive," a senior official said. "That's the test of this weekend, whether Aristide gets back and things stay under control."

Aristide's principal American adviser agrees. "I'm fearful of the situation in Haiti," former Maryland Rep. Michael D. Barnes said. "There are a large number of heavily armed men who are opposed to the restoration of democracy."

Aristide has already survived several assassination attempts, two of them in the first eight months of his presidency, before he was thrown out by a military coup. If his opponents succeed in killing him now, one official said, "the reaction in the streets could be an explosion of terrible violence."

One senior official said the Administration is particularly worried about the first days after Aristide's return, in part because the Haitian leader does not have a government in place yet.

As a result, the United States is mounting an extraordinary effort to keep Haiti's president safe in his own country.

When Aristide arrives in Port-au-Prince on Saturday, a U.S. Army helicopter will whisk him from the airport to his re-inauguration ceremony. U.S. military forces will ring the Presidential Palace where the president lives and works.

"No parade," a U.S. official said, saying it would be too dangerous to expose Aristide to crowds.

The CIA and other U.S. intelligence agencies have launched a crash program to detect possible plots against Aristide. One official said that several sabotage attempts by remnants of the military regime already have been foiled.

And last week, the State Department signed a million-dollar contract with a private Virginia security firm, MVM Inc., to provide a personal bodyguard detail for Aristide until his Haitian security team can complete its training.

"Our people are already in country," said Karen Marquez, co-owner of the firm. "They will be in President Aristide's security detail, along with his Haitian detail, until the State Department decides that the Haitians are ready to take over."

Under the contract, the United States will pay the salaries and expenses of 21 security experts, including former Secret Service and State Department bodyguards, for three to nine months. The total cost, depending on the amount of time the bodyguards remain in Haiti, could approach $2 million, officials said.

"We took this route because we wanted to get the U.S. government out of the business of protecting Aristide as soon as possible," a senior official said.

In his three years in exile in Washington, Aristide has been protected by the Secret Service 24 hours a day.

Aristide's daily briefings by American officials have included several long meetings to negotiate the details of his security arrangements, aides said.

And during his last week in exile, amid frenzied preparations for his return to Haiti, Aristide took time out to thank the Americans who helped move the Administration toward the assertive policy that finally pushed the military regime out of power.

Aristide plans to return to Port-au-Prince in a caravan of at least two passenger jets, carrying not only his aides but members of the U.S. Congress, other supporters and anchors from four major American television networks. Secretary of State Warren Christopher will go as head of the official U.S. delegation.

The tangible prospect of death for anyone seeking democracy in Haiti was the theme of one of Aristide's farewell appearances here Wednesday, a memorial for Guy Malary, his justice minister who was assassinated last year.

The ceremony, sponsored by the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Center, also revealed how close Aristide has become with members of the Kennedy clan who took him under their wing in a Washington that was sometimes hostile.

In his speech, Aristide said he has come to address Ethel Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy's widow, as "Mom," and referred to her daughter Kerry Kennedy Cuomo as "our dear Kerry."

In a poignant, spiritual gesture, Aristide spoke for several minutes directly to Malary: "On Saturday, I will be in Haiti, but we will not be alone. We will be with you," he said, gazing straight ahead. "We will build a state of law with you. We will build a new Haiti with you."

Aristide also attended a gala reception at the Organization of American States headquarters celebrating his restoration.

Aristide's time during his last few days in America has been spent on substantive matters, Barnes said. "He's in constant, round-the-clock meetings on the logistics of his return and the plans for his new government," Barnes said.

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