Aristide, Haitian opposition given Monday deadline to accept peace deal


PORT-AU-PRINCE, Feb 21 (AFP) – International mediators have given embattled Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide and Haiti?s political opposition three days to accept a peace plan aimed at ending the country?s increasingly violent political crisis, diplomatic sources said Saturday.

The sources, speaking on condition of anonymity, said diplomats from the United States, Canada, France, the Caribbean Community and the Organization of American States delivered the ultimatum to Aristide and opposition leader Andre Apaid in meetings here Friday.

“They have until Monday to respond and, give or take a little slippage, we expect them to respond by Monday,” said one source familiar with the talks. Higher-level diplomats from the plan?s sponsors were to arrive to reinforce the urgency of that message amid growing fears the western hemisphere?s poorest country might succumb to anarchy.

The political impasse has been exacerbated by a two-week-old insurgency that has killed at least 57, left dozens wounded and marred the upcoming Carnival festivities. Armed anti-Aristide rebels now in control of the northwestern city of Gonaives vowed meanwhile to attack the nearby municipality of Saint Marc and Cap Haitien, the nation?s second-largest city, unless the president resigns. In the face of such threats, members of Haiti?s poorly trained and ill-equipped police force — numbering just 5,000 in a country of 8.3 million — have abandoned their posts in at least four other towns, resulting in looting and arson, local residents said. The increasing chaos prompted Canada to join the United States in urging its nationals to leave Haiti as soon as possible. A steady stream of Canadians and Americans, mainly aid workers and missionaries, crowded the capital?s Toussaint l?Overture International Airport seeking departing flights. A US official said some 69 Peace Corps volunteers were evacuated Friday to the neighboring Dominican Republic. A Pentagon team meanwhile arrived in Port-au-Prince to check security at the US embassy compound and the safety of its diplomats. The official said there were no immediate plans to withdraw US diplomats from Haiti although nonessential embassy staff and the families of US government employees have been encouraged to leave. The international peace plan would require Aristide, a former Catholic priest, to cede significant powers, including control of the police, to a new government, but remain in office until his current term ends in 2006, according to diplomatic sources. Aristide has repeatedly rejected calls to resign. In Washington, White House spokesman Scott McClellan confirmed Aristide could stay under the plan but declined to offer more details. The diplomatic sources said a three-person panel — one Aristide representative, an opposition member and an international official — would select advisers who would name a prime minister and a new government. The plan pointedly excludes members of the armed insurgency. That prime minister would have direct authority over an internationally trained and supervised police force, they said. Both Aristide and the opposition must name their representatives by Monday if they intend to accept the deal, the sources said. The sources could not say what would would happen if both, or either side, refused to agree. Aristide has thus far rejected giving his opponents a say in choosing a prime minister, but one source said the president had given diplomats “no reason to believe he won?t accept the plan.” Of greater concern, the source said, is the possibility the opposition may reject a proposal that keeps Aristide in office. “This is what we consider to be a difficult exercise,” the source said. Opposition demands for Aristide?s ouster have become more strident since the president dissolved the legislature and began ruling by decree in January amid a bitter fight over disputed parliamentary elections two years ago. Apaid, the leader of the so-called “Group of 184” opposition movement, was expected to announce his intentions shortly after meeting with the visiting delegation and just before the leader of the team, US Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roger Noriega, speaks, officials said. One of the opposition?s chief concerns is the disarming of pro-Aristide gangs such as the one that opened fire on about 1,000 student demonstrators Friday in Port-au-Prince, wounding 14, including two journalists — one foreign, one Haitian. Also complicating the situation is the presence of the armed insurgents — many of them ex-soliders in Haiti?s army, which Aristide disbanded in 1995 after a coup — who have been mounting hit-and-run raids on Haitian cities since February 5, when they captured Gonaives.

US Secretary of State Colin Powell and others have vowed not to deal with the rebels and warned Aristide?s political opponents not to associate with them simply because they share the goal of ousting him. “This is the time for the opposition to recognize that whatever their legitimate complaints may or may not be, they will not be dealt with if they fall in league or get under the same umbrella with thugs, murderers,” Powell told the Knight-Ridder newspaper chain.

  Matthew Lee