Thu, Mar 04, 2004 - Page 7 News List

US forced me out, says Aristide

REGIME CHANGE Accounts of the controversial Haitian president's last hours of rule are incompatible, with the US claiming Aristide left the country of his own volition

THE GUARDIAN , PORT-AU-PRINCE

Haitian rebel leader Guy Philippe parades atop a pick-up truck through the streets of downtown Port-au-Prince on Tuesday. Philippe was marching through the streets of the capital followed by a large group of chanting and singing supporters.

PHOTO: AFP

Former Haitian president Jean-Bertrand Aristide was sitting in his car on the tarmac at Port-au-Prince airport early on Sunday morning waiting for the plane to take him to exile when the US diplomat Luis Moreno tapped on his window.

"President, with all due respect, the plane is 20 minutes away, I really need the letter," Moreno said, referring to Aristide's letter of resignation. Aristide then pulled an envelope from his wife's purse, as she sat stonily by his side.

Once its contents were confirmed, Moreno apologized to Aristide and his wife.

"I said I was very sorry to see things end this way," he said.

Aristide replied in English: "Well, that's life."

An hour later he was gone, zig-zagging the skies in search of asylum and finally landing in the Central African Republic.

This, at least, is the US' official version of Aristide's last hours as told by Moreno, a career diplomat who has been in Haiti for the past two-and-a-half years.

Aristide's account could not be more different. He says he was abducted, forced by the US to leave his own country at gunpoint.

A large number of US agents arrived at his official residence, he says.

"They came at night ... there were too many. I couldn't count them. [They] were telling me that if I don't leave they would start shooting and be killing in a matter of time."

Asked who had kidnapped him, he replied: "Forces, Haitian forces. They were Americans and Haitians together acting to surround the airport, my house, the palace. I was told that I better leave.

"American agents talked to me. Haitian agents talked to me. And I finally realized it was true, we were going to have bloodshed. And when I asked how many people may get killed, they said thousands may get killed. So [they were] using that kind of force to lead a coup d'etat."

What really happened during the former Haitian president's final hours in office has become almost as controversial as what he did in his decade in power.

The political vacuum left by his departure remains unfilled. The rebel leaders, who have merged with the police, claim to have secured military control. Opposition leaders have refused to negotiate with Aristide's prime minister, Yvon Neptune, about forming a new government.

They were expected to demand his resignation.

"I am the chief," declared the rebel leader, Guy Philippe. "The military chief."

The deposed dictator Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier has announced that he intends to return as soon as possible, although he added that seeking the presidency was "not on my agenda."

African-American members of the US Congress and lobbyists are demanding an investigation into what they regard as regime change. One congresswoman, Barbara Lee, plans to raise the issue before the House international committee later today.

In the Central African Republic, where Aristide is staying at the official residence of President Francois Bozize, the government has asked him to refrain from claiming that he was kidnapped for fear of an international incident.

The official US position is that Aristide's claim is absurd.

Moreno says he arrived at Aristide's home accompanied only by an embassy political officer and the US security guards, sent by the US ambassador, James Foley, to collect a letter.

When he said, "I understand you have a letter for me", Aristide replied: "I give you my word, I will give you the letter. You know what my word means to me. You know I always keep my word."

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