Bullets fired at a South African police helicopter and into a sports stadium in Haiti forced President Thabo Mbeki to call off his controversial participation in the key ceremony marking Haiti’s independence celebrations.

South African police said on Friday that the South African helicopter was fired at on Thursday while it was carrying South African security officials scouting the port city of
Gonaives to ensure that it was safe before Mbeki visited it hours later.

Mbeki was supposed to join Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in a re-enactment ceremony to commemorate the Declaration of Independence from
France by Haiti‘s African slaves in Gonaives on January 1, 1804, after a 12-year revolution.

This launched the first independent African state in history.

The re-enactment was to be the crux of the independence celebrations which Mbeki went out of his way to attend.

For that he sent to
Haiti the navy supply ship SAS Drakensberg, the police helicopter and a large continent of staff.

According to the Democratic Alliance – which on Friday called the visit a “fiasco” – Mbeki’s back-up included 250 naval personnel, 51 police officers and 18 national intelligence agents.

Mbeki had been warned before that violence would mar the independence celebrations and Aristide’s political opponents had specifically warned him not to visit Gonaives, an opposition stronghold.

But South African foreign affairs officials had vowed before Thursday that Mbeki would attend regardless. He was due to fly by helicopter to Gonaives at midday on January 1 from the capital city of Port-au-Prince.

However, Mbeki’s security advisers decided shortly before the ceremony to call off Mbeki’s visit after bullets began flying around Gonaives.

They decided the venue was no longer safe for him, his spokesperson Bheki Khumalo said. Mbeki himself had not been fired at and was at no time in any danger, he said.

South African police spokesperson Selby Bokaba said shots were fired at the advance party of Mbeki’s officials as they flew over Gonaives in a helicopter to scout the area.

They did not return fire as had been reported but returned to Port-au-Prince and advised Mbeki not to attend the ceremony.

SABC journalist Denzil Taylor, who was in Gonaives shortly before Mbeki’s scheduled arrival, said in a telephone interview from Haiti on Friday that he believed Mbeki’s visit had been called off because Aristide’s opponents had fired “volleys” of shots into the stadium where the independence ceremony was due to be held.

Khumalo said the event which Mbeki was supposed to attend in Gonaives was a soup eating ceremony, a tradition celebrating the liberation of the slaves.

However, Taylor said he understood the Gonaives event was the centrepiece of the independence celebrations since it was a re-enactment of the declaration of independence, taking place in a stadium on the spot where the declaration had happened 200 years ago.

“We got to the soccer stadium well before Mbeki was due. At first just one shot was fired into the platform and the South African VIP protection guys said they were not ready to call off Mbeki’s visit

But then a bit later a volley of shots was fired into the stadium from the buildings around it. Then the two-way shooting became cowboy-like. We were crawling around on the ground trying to get out of the way.

“People started running and the SA VIP guys packed up and said ‘we’re out of here.’ They phoned up
Port-au-Prince and said; ‘We’re not going to let our man come here.'”

Taylor said his impression was that Mbeki’s visit to Haiti was “a plan that went wrong.” He said the ordinary Haitian people had at first welcomed Mbeki’s presence but then seemed to be changing their minds.

They were saying that SAS Drakensberg was not a supply ship for Mbeki but a warship sent to protect Aristide from his political enemies.
Taylor said it was difficult for the SA officials here to counter this impression because Aristide’s people themselves were agreeing that the South Africans had come to protect him.

“Rumours are also flying around here that South African soldiers are walking into opposition radio stations and closing them down. Of course it is not happening but it is an indication of what people think about the South African presence here,”
Taylor said.

Most world figures stayed away out of fear of just the sort of civil strife that racked
Port-au-Prince, Gonaives and the cities of Gros Morne and Jacmel.