WASHINGTON – After days of hedging on the issue, the Bush
administration made clear Friday that Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide should
hand power over to his constitutional successor in order to avoid further
chaos in the country.

President Bush decided to support a tougher line on Aristide following
an extended debate within the administration over how to proceed, a senior
administration official told the Associated Press.

If Aristide steps down, the constitutional successor would be Supreme
Court Chief Justice Boniface Alexandre. In an interim period before elections
are held, a broad-based government would be formed consistent with a peace
proposal set forth a month ago by the Caribbean Community, the official

It was not clear whether the more assertive U.S. policy has been
communicated directly to Aristide.

Without pressure, this official added, Aristide may elect to try to
remain in ! power even if his defeat at the hands of armed opponents seems

The administration hopes that if Aristide resigns an opposition
government would step in. If Aristide is forcibly removed, Haiti would be run by
an illegal regime with no international standing and little possibility of
securing popular support.

One option: 2,000 Marines
The stand came as President Bush reviewed possible military options,
including one that would send three Navy ships and 2,000 Marines to the
Caribbean should an emergency evacuation be required, U.S. officials
tell NBC News.

The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, emphasized that no
decision to send those troops has been made, NBC’s Jim Miklaszewski
reported from the Pentagon.

Another factor that could warrant sending Marines is if U.S. Coast
Guard crews feel they need back up to stem any massive wave of Haitian
refugees fleeing the country by boat.

The g! roup would be led by the helicopter carrier USS Saipan, and joined
by the USS Oak Hill and the USS Trenton, ships now in Norfolk, Va.

In Haiti itself, the conflict between President Jean-Bertrand Aristide
and political as well as armed opposition continued Friday. In the capital
Port-au-Prince, most commercial flights were canceled and thousands of
pro-Aristide looters descended on port facilities.

No assault soon?
But rebel leader Guy Philippe mapped out a new strategy from his base
in the northern port of Cap-Haitien, suggesting no direct attack was
imminent. He said rebels want to blockade Port-au-Prince and “close the circle”
around Aristide, forcing boats with food or fuel from Miami to come to
Cap-Haitien, the second-largest city.

That strategy would bring further misery to residents, already lining
up for scarce gas and dwindling fresh produce since the rebels cut
supplies from the central Artibonite district th! at is Haiti’s breadbasket.

Philippe said his movement does not want to fight Aristide’s die-hard
supporters. “Port-au-Prince now, it would be very hard to take it. It
would be a lot of fight, a lot of death,” Philippe said. “So what we want is
desperation first, so that’s what we’re doing now, closing the circle.”

Overnight, rebels drove police out and freed about 67 prisoners in
Mireblais, about 25 miles southeast of Port-au-Prince, witnesses said.

And Haiti’s third-largest city, Les Cayes, fell Thursday and is now in
the control of the Base Resistance, an anti-government group allied with
Haiti’s opposition Democratic Platform but not tied to the rebels. The
rebel leader there said his forces were now in the town of Jeremie in
their first push into the country’s southern peninsula.

In Paris, meanwhile, a Haitian government team met with French
officials and France later made a new appeal for Aristide to quit as a first step
toward restoring order in Haiti. France earlier this week urged the
“immediate” formation of an international civilian force to support a
new government.

Aristide has said he will see out his term in office to 2006 but was
willing to share power.


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