Originally: Mbeki Didn’t Attend the Ceremony in Gonaives for Safety Reasons

Pretoria – A South African helicopter belonging to President Thabo Mbeki’s advance protection team has come under fire in the Caribbean island state of Haiti, prompting Mbeki to cancel a scheduled visit to the northwestern city of Gonaives, police said on Friday.

“A helicopter belonging to the South African security forces came under fire on Thursday in Haiti while doing an advance sweep before a scheduled visit to a soup ceremony in Gonaives, celebrating the country’s independence,” said Senior Superintendent Selby Bokaba.

“The helicopter turned back and our forces of the advance team on the ground were withdrawn,” Bokaba told reporters.

He said Mbeki who was supposed to attend the soup ceremony – a tradition which was celebrated for the first time by Haitians after independence in 1804 – was still in the capital of Port-au-Prince.

“At no stage did the South Africans return fire,” Bokaba stressed, but added that the situation was “volatile.”

The president was “nowhere near the area when the shooting happened.”

“Neither did any of our forces return fire,” he said.

“The president will return from his visit to Haiti tomorrow (Saturday) as scheduled,” Khumalo said.

Haitian President Jean Bertrand Aristide on Thursday celebrated the bicentennial of his country’s independence amid political chaos and abject poverty.

The former Roman Catholic priest, with Mbeki at his side, took the rostrum in front of the National Palace to declare before an ocean of flag-waving supporters, “a bicentennial of freedom, for a millennium of peace”.

The anniversary commemorated history’s only successful revolt by slaves, who sent Napoleon’s troops packing 200 years ago.

But what should have been a festive event for Aristide was marred by demonstrations demanding his resignation under a cloud of elusive democracy, economic chaos, primitive health care and unsanitary conditions.

Thousands of Aristide’s supporters and opponents clashed in the capital in a stone-throwing melee that left at least eight injured, two of them of gunshot wounds.