Sun, Mar 14, 2004 - Page 7 News List

Haitian PM angry over Aristide trip

HARDLY NEIGHBORLY Jamaica's allowing Haiti's ousted president to visit has earned a stinging rebuke for exacerbating an already tense situation

REUTERS , PORT-AU-PRINCE

US Marines trake into custody a man inside the airport in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on Friday. According to the Marines, the man was arrested 8m from the front gate of the airport under suspicion of belonging to former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide's armed militants called chimeres.

PHOTO: AP

Haiti's new leader fired a diplomatic broadside at Jamaica on Friday for allowing ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide to visit, while US and French troops came under renewed attack by gunmen.

Prime Minister Gerard Latortue, who was sworn in on Friday, said Aristide's planned return to the Caribbean had already stoked tensions, and Jamaica's decision to allow the former slum priest to visit from next week was an "unfriendly act."

Latortue announced he might fly to Haiti's Caribbean neighbor this weekend to pursue an agreement with Jamaican Prime Minister P.J. Patterson to limit Aristide's stay.

"Since the word was known yesterday afternoon that Aristide is coming to Jamaica we have observed an increase in tensions in Port-au-Prince," Latortue told reporters.

He voiced his objections as US Marines reported they had fought new gunbattles in a city where many are seething over Aristide's departure, and that French forces had also come under attack.

The Marines, leading a 2,550-strong international peace force, have been in half a dozen firefights -- killing four people -- since they landed hours after Aristide fled into exile on Feb. 29.

Aristide, ousted by a month-long revolt and by US pressure to quit, has insisted from exile in the Central African Republic that he is still president.

Latortue, 69, a former foreign minister and UN official, was inaugurated in a hastily called ceremony a few hours after his predecessor, Aristide appointee Yvon Neptune, delivered an embittered resignation speech and sped to the airport.

"I will do everything in my power to merit the confidence of the people. The failure of this government will be the failure of the nation," Latortue said in the gleaming white National Palace from which Aristide ruled.

Earlier, he told reporters he had talked to Jamaican leader Patterson. "He has pledged that he will try to make Aristide's stay in Jamaica as short as possible," Latortue said.

Aristide, regarded as a messiah by many of the poor he championed but accused of despotism and corruption by his enemies, was expected to arrive on Tuesday on a visit that Jamaica originally said could last up to 10 weeks.

He was not expected to ask for political asylum.

But Aristide's proximity a mere 180km from Haiti's shores could fuel anger in the slums.

Illustrating the continuing tensions, Marine Staff Sergeant Tim Edwards said a Marine patrol came under attack in Port-au-Prince twice on Thursday evening.

"Neither the Marines nor the gunmen suffered casualties," Edwards said. A car dealership was destroyed by gunfire in the firefights. In a separate incident, French troops came under fire on Friday morning, US military officials said.

The gunmen were suspected of being Aristide supporters, enraged at the loss of Haiti's first democratically elected leader in what many of them are convinced was a US coup.

Sent in under a UN mandate, the international force must restore order in this deeply divided country of 8 million.

The task is not easy as the rule of law has largely broken down. On Friday, a screaming crowd in the capital stomped, kicked and beat a suspected thief to death in the upscale hilltop suburb of Petionville in an outburst of vigilante justice.

Guy Philippe, a leader of the former soldiers who helped push Aristide out, dismissed the worries about Aristide's proximity. "He's finished. He's an old story," he said.

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