Haitian rebels ready to strike capital

White House escalates its efforts to persuade Arisitide to step down

February 29, 2004|By Carol J. Williams and Paul Richter | Carol J. Williams and Paul Richter,LOS ANGELES TIMES

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti - After a U.S. appeal for an end to violence by supporters of Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Arisitide as well as by armed rebels threatening to attack here, both factions stood back yesterday from a looming clash in this terrified capital.

Nonetheless, the White House sharply escalated its criticism of Aristide yesterday, suggesting in the bluntest terms yet that he should surrender his office to restore peace.

"The long-simmering crisis is largely of Mr. Aristide's doing," the White House statement said, and "his own actions have called into question his fitness to remain in office." Although the statement stopped just short of urging his resignation, it said, "We urge him to examine his position carefully, to accept responsibility, and to act in the best interests of the people of Haiti."

A day earlier, the U.S. Embassy here had appealed to Aristide to rein in his loyalists, who had erected burning barricades, robbed motorists, looted businesses and executed suspected enemies ahead of the feared invasion by anti-Aristide rebels.

The besieged president responded by urging the armed street gangs defending him to restore order and to remove their barricades during daylight hours so commerce can resume amid the smoldering debris and wreckage.

His response was matched by the leader of the insurgency, Guy Philippe, who said in the rebel-held city of Cap-Haitien that he was holding off on an attack here for a day or two to allow time for diplomats to persuade Aristide to step down and defuse the crisis.

Philippe had said he would take Port-au-Prince today, his 36th birthday, although the chaos unleashed in recent days by hundreds of pro-Aristide chimeres - Creole for a mythical monster - appeared to sober his expectations of an easy march to the National Palace.

Despite a slight easing of the tension and fear that have paralyzed Port-au-Prince, only street peddlers and a few pedestrians braved going out in public yesterday. The only vehicles negotiating the piles of rubble left on the roads by Aristide backers, who loitered nearby, were those of journalists and the vehicles transporting the street thugs.

A late-night television address Friday by Aristide, repeated yesterday morning, blamed the lawlessness on "baseless rumors" that foreign powers have urged him to resign for the good of the country. He called stepping down "out of the question."

The United States has appealed to Aristide to recognize that he has lost his authority amid the 3-week-old rebellion in which more than half of Haiti's territory has fallen to the rebels. Townspeople have cheered the armed invaders, and officers of the National Police Force have deserted in droves rather than defend Aristide's government.

The Bush administration has been in a delicate position on the question of Aristide's resignation, because he was democratically elected and U.S. forces restored him to power 10 years ago after he was ousted in a coup. The administration also doesn't want to encourage the idea that governments can be toppled by the pressure of mobs.

But its language yesterday signaled that the administration has moved closer to the position of the French, who assert that Aristide has undermined his own legitimacy by anti-democratic actions, and should resign.

Leaders of the mainstream political opposition, who share the rebels' insistence that Aristide resign but condemn their resort to violence, saw the step back from Friday's bloody mayhem as a chance for diplomacy to do its part in encouraging Aristide's departure.

"It's always better to give way to a political process, a solution, rather than have a confrontation that causes more blood to spill. But Mr. Aristide must stop the terror he is entertaining in the capital of Port-au-Prince," said Andre Apaid, a prominent businessman and opposition figure. He pointed out that the international community has said it would not deal with any faction that came to power here by force.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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