Preval sworn in as president of Haiti

SECOND CHANCE: The new Haitian president took power only hours after a riot in a jail just two blocks from parliament resulted in the death of two inmates

AP , PORT-AU-PRINCE

Tue, May 16, 2006 - Page 7

Rene Preval took power as Haiti's president for the second time in a decade, urging his battered and divided population to unite for peace two years after an armed uprising ousted his predecessor and pushed the nation into chaos.

Thousands of Haitians thronged the national palace to take part in Sunday's inauguration for Preval, a soft-spoken 63-year-old who replaces a US-backed interim government installed after former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide fled into exile amid the bloody February 2004 revolt.

Preval, a champion of the poor, urged Haiti's fractured society to put aside their differences and work together for a stable, democratic future.

"Haitian people, the solution to our problems is in our hands," Preval said in his inaugural address outside the palace, where a sea of people cheered and waved Haitian flags.

"We need to make peace through dialogue and talking to each other so we can decide where we want to go together," he said. "If we don't talk, then we will only fight and there will be no peace."

Some of the loudest applause from the crowd came when Preval bid farewell to Haiti's two former interim leaders, Prime Minister Gerard Latortue and President Boniface Alexandre, who were unpopular among many poor Haitians who accused their transitional government of persecuting Aristide supporters.

Preval, a former Aristide ally, will have to overcome big challenges to govern, including a corrupt state bureaucracy, a wrecked economy and rampant crime.

Earlier, Preval took the oath of office inside a sweltering parliamentary chamber crowded with Haitian legislators, UN officials and foreign dignitaries representing 40 countries. Among them was Florida Governor Jeb Bush, who led the US delegation, Canadian Governor General Michaelle Jean and US actor Danny Glover.

Outside, several hundred Preval supporters gathered in an adjacent park, hoping to catch a glimpse of their new president. Some waved portraits of Aristide and called for his return, chanting: "Aristide's blood is our blood!" and "We want him back!"

Preval has said Haiti's constitution allows the former president to return from exile in South Africa. However, Preval hasn't said if he would welcome back Aristide -- a move the US has warned would destabilize the country.

Aristide and his supporters accuse the US of kidnapping him and flying him to Africa amid the revolt -- a charge Washington denies.

Hours before Sunday's ceremony, prisoners demanding their freedom rioted at the national penitentiary, just a few blocks from the parliament. Inmates later massed on the roof and held up two bodies, apparently of prisoners. Haitian police and UN troops quickly surrounded the prison, and the disturbance was quelled.

Officials offered no immediate comment on the incident, which was a strong reminder of the challenges Preval faces reforming Haiti's broken justice system.

The UN envoy to Haiti, Juan Gabriel Valdes, has urged Preval to take quick action on the prison, where many inmates have languished for years without being charged with a crime.

Preval promised to create jobs and attract investment after winning Feb. 7 elections. In his first official act as president, he signed an accord integrating Haiti into a Venezuelan oil pact that supplies Caribbean countries with fuel under preferential terms.

In a joint statement with Preval, Venezuelan Vice President Jose Vicente Rangel said Haiti would receive 100,000 barrels of oil yesterday as its first shipment under the Petrocaribe pact.