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Aristide Says U.S. Forced Him to Leave

The Bush administration denies charges by the exiled Haitian president that he was a victim of a 'modern kidnapping.' Some at the U.N. are uneasy.

March 02, 2004|Paul Richter and Maggie Farley | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — A day after a U.S.-chartered plane spirited him from his strife-torn country to Africa, exiled Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide charged Monday that the United States had forced him to leave in what he described as a "coup d'etat" and "kidnapping."

Bush administration officials fervently denied the allegation, but the accusations from Aristide and his allies in the U.S. Congress and elsewhere threw the White House on the defensive and loomed as a potential complication in the effort to steer the impoverished country into a new era after nearly a month of unrest.

At the United Nations, some diplomats expressed uneasiness, fearing that their quick approval Sunday night of a Security Council resolution supporting an international peacekeeping effort was beginning to look more like the sanctioning of a coup.

"Aristide was a democratically elected president who responded positively to a political solution that the opposition rejected," Algerian Ambassador Abdallah Baali said, referring to a power-sharing deal Aristide had agreed to but Haitian opposition leaders had rebuffed. "But the pressure was not put on the opposition. It was put on him. Today we wonder if we had reliable information, and enough time to make the right decision."

In Port-au-Prince on Monday, jubilant crowds greeted gun-toting rebels in front of the National Palace, where the new interim government is based.

Several hundred U.S. Marines arrived to form the vanguard of the international stabilization force, but without large numbers of troops, the city remained in a power vacuum. With no army or reliable police force in place, some rebels said they had begun shooting looters.

Aristide, speaking from a government compound in the Central African Republic, said that contrary to what U.S. officials have said publicly, he agreed to go into exile only after American officials told him they would not protect him from the rebel forces that were preparing to overrun the capital.

In an interview with CNN, Aristide said he saw the U.S. military "surround the airport, the palace, my house.... They used pressure to push me out. That's why I call it again and again a coup d'etat, a modern way to have a modern kidnapping."

Aristide said he got on a U.S. plane but didn't know his destination. "They told us that 20 minutes before they landed in Central African Republic."

White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan called Aristide's accusations "nonsense."

"Conspiracy theories do nothing to help the Haitian people move toward a better, more free and more prosperous future," McClellan said.

Aristide's statements could encourage some of his supporters, especially in the capital's slums, to resist formation of a new government, but there were few immediate signs of reaction.

U.S. officials have said that Aristide asked for Washington's help in leaving the country when he realized Saturday night that he could not safely stay. They maintained that Aristide approached U.S. officials about 9 p.m. Saturday to inquire about help, and by midnight, after consulting his family, had agreed to leave and to sign a letter of resignation.

But in statements throughout Monday, Aristide and supporters including Rep. Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles) -- who spoke to him by phone -- insisted that the story was quite different.

Rangel, after meeting with U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and five other members of the Congressional Black Caucus at the United Nations in New York, said Aristide's resignation letter had been dictated to him by American officials.

Asked if Aristide was kidnapped, Rangel replied: "That's subjective. You can either stay and get shot, or leave with the military. He chose to leave with the military. So I suspect that you may have a hard time prosecuting the kidnapping. But it was against his will."

Waters, in a news conference in Los Angeles, said, "I'm convinced that our country has been involved in a regime change." In the same way that the U.S. has sought to undermine leaders such as Cuba's Fidel Castro, she said, Aristide was pushed out because "these are leaders of governments who are not considered to be puppets of our country."

A Haitian diplomat said Monday that a copy of the resignation letter was faxed to him by the U.S. State Department. The diplomat said that led him to believe that Aristide did not write the letter and lent credence, he believed, to Aristide's claim that his departure was coerced. In his CNN interview, Aristide said that his resignation letter had been doctored.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, asked by reporters if Aristide had been "virtually kidnapped," grinned at the question.

"I would be amazed if that were the case," Rumsfeld said.

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell on Monday offered details of Saturday night conversations involving U.S. officials and Aristide, and acknowledged that they discussed whether he would be safe remaining in Haiti.

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