Originally: The prime minister warns that the government could fall, but the U.N., U.S. and France are reluctant to intervene militarily.

February 18, 2004

UNITED NATIONS ? Haiti’s prime minister appealed Tuesday for international help to end the violent uprising in his country, but officials in Washington, Paris and at the United Nations offered limited assistance, saying Haitians themselves must decide whether the government stays in power.

Prime Minister Yvon Neptune said his government was in danger of being toppled, and he asked the international community “to show that it really wants peace and stability in Haiti.”

“We are witnessing the coup d’etat machine in motion,” he told reporters in Port-au-Prince, Haiti’s capital.

But Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said the United States, which sent in soldiers to restore President Jean-Bertrand Aristide to power in 1994 after he was ousted in a coup, is interested in providing only political support this time.

“There is frankly no enthusiasm right now for sending in military or police forces to put down the violence that we are seeing,” Powell said in Washington. “What we want to do right now is find a political solution,” which could be backed up by an international police presence, he said.

More than 50 people have been killed in Haiti since anti-Aristide forces rose up Feb. 5 in the city of Gonaives, seizing a police station. Violent clashes have now spread to other areas. On Tuesday, rebels reportedly had full control of the central city of Hinche, a day after they attacked the police station and killed the police chief.

Tuesday’s muted response to Neptune’s plea for aid reflected the dilemma the international community faces in helping Haiti: Aristide, a once-revered former priest from the slums who became the country’s first democratically elected president in 1990, has frittered away his goodwill.

Aristide won the presidency again in late 2000. The vote was boycotted by the opposition amid fears of a repeat of the violence that marred parliamentary elections earlier in the year that were widely seen as unfair. Critics say he has created a brutal paramilitary to shut down the political opposition and that fair elections cannot occur until he steps ? or is pushed ? aside.

Yet Washington and other countries say they cannot condone Aristide’s opponents using force to remove him.

“Certainly there needs to be some changes in the way Haiti is governed and the security situation as well,” White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan said in a briefing aboard Air Force One. But he said it was “a matter for the people of Haiti to decide.”

In Paris, French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin summoned Cabinet colleagues to a meeting to discuss ways to help stabilize the former French colony, where about 2,000 French citizens still live.

“Can we deploy a peacekeeping force?” he said on French radio. “We are in contact with all of our partners in the framework of the United Nations, which has sent a humanitarian mission to Haiti to see what is possible.”

But De Villepin noted that outside military intervention would be “very difficult” and he urged Aristide to address his opponents’ complaints about his governance. “President Aristide let his country drift away year after year,” De Villepin said. “It is now time that he finds the strength to move toward dialogue.”

French diplomats at the U.N. said that there was no plan to take the issue to the Security Council to authorize a peacekeeping force but that there were discussions among Francophone countries about how to help.

At the U.N., Secretary-General Kofi Annan said Tuesday that he was “extremely concerned” about Haiti and that the world body would become more “actively engaged” there. Though Annan seems to have ruled out sending in peacekeepers, he may name a special envoy in the next few days to help mediate between rival factions and coordinate with the Caribbean Community bloc and the Organization of American States.

Several weeks ago, the Caribbean Community presented Aristide with a plan to help defuse the crisis, including dismantling militant gangs and allowing opponents to protest peacefully. Aristide has said he will follow the plan, but has not yet taken steps.

In the meantime, U.N. agencies and Haiti’s neighbors are girding for a refugee crisis. Representatives of the U.N.’s refugee agency met with officials from the U.S. and Caribbean countries Tuesday in Geneva and Washington in a bid to ensure that any Haitians who fled would be treated humanely.

Conditions in Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, have deteriorated as a result of the rebellion. An emergency mission of U.N. aid groups has been on the ground there for eight days and will remain until the end of the week to assess needs.

The U.N.’s food relief agency is trying to negotiate safe passage for supplies, warning that the armed groups’ closure of key roads means that nearly 270,000 needy people are cut off from aid.