By SONYA ROSS, Associated Press Writer
WASHINGTON – The Bush administration rejected on Tuesday bids for power in Haiti by rebels and insisted they lay down their arms and return to their homes.
There is a political process under way to pick up after the departure of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide and “the rebels do not have a role in this process,” State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said.
“The rebels have to lay down their arms and go home,” Boucher said in rejecting a declaration by rebel leader Guy Philippe that he had become the new chief of Haiti’s military and other assertions of power by other rebels.
Roger Noriega, the assistant secretary of state for the region, said of Philippe: “He is not in control of anything but a ragtag band of people.”
The buildup of the international presence in Haiti will make Philippe’s role “less and less central in Haitian life,” Noriega told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “And I think he will probably want to make himself scarce.”
Asked when that would be, Noriega said within the next few days. “We have sent that message to him. He obviously hasn’t received it.”
The Bush administration, meanwhile, tried to set aside the controversy over Aristide’s departure from Haiti, expressing little interest in his claims that he was forced to go into exile by the American military.
“I think the story’s been addressed,” White House press secretary Scott McClellan said, referring to emphatic administration denials. “The decision to leave was Mr. Aristide’s to make.”
Aristide’s resignation letter said he was leaving “in order to avoid a bloodbath,” according to a U.S. translation from Creole. “I accept to leave, with the hope that there will be life and not death.” A copy of the letter was provided by the Bush administration.
But Sen. John Kerry (news – web sites), D-Mass., the front-runner for the Democratic nomination for president, said he thought there ought to be some investigation of the claim that Aristide was forced out and escorted by U.S. troops.
“I don’t know the truth of it. I really don’t,” Kerry said on “Today” on NBC. “But I think it needs to be explored and we need to know the truth of what happened.”
McClellan responded to Kerry by launching a fresh attack on Aristide’s leadership.
“It was Aristide’s failed government that empowered armed gangs to control the country,” McClellan said. “It was a failed government that condoned official corruption, including drug trafficking. it was a failed government that engaged in acts of political violence against a peaceful democratic opposition.”
The spokesman declined to say what evidence the administration has to support his claim that Aristide’s government condoned drug trafficking
McClellan said U.S. officials were not trying to contact Aristide. “There are some absurd accusations that some are choosing to repeat and they do nothing to help the Haitian people through this difficult period,” McClellan said.
Black lawmakers and others demanded an investigation into the way the administration treated Aristide in the hours before he left his country and turned up in the Central African Republic. They built their objections around repeated claims by Aristide that U.S. officials forced him out.
With Aristide gone, and rebels who brought him down inside Port-au-Prince, Haiti’s capital, the first significant U.S. military presence began arriving Monday.
The Pentagon (news – web sites) said as many as 400 Marines were there, with hundreds more to come. As many as 2,000 U.S. troops could eventually go to Haiti to help curb the chaos, but Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said U.S. troops would remain in Haiti only for a short time. An interim international force that could include up to 5,000 troops from France, Canada and elsewhere was expected to stay until replaced by a U.N. peacekeeping force.
Aristide told The Associated Press that his resignation was coerced. He said U.S. agents who came to his home “were telling me that if I don’t leave they would start shooting and be killing in a matter of time.” It was unclear whether Aristide meant that the rebels or U.S. agents would begin shooting.
“I was forced to leave,” Aristide said in a telephone interview from Africa.
Secretary of State Colin Powell (news – web sites) and Rumsfeld denied that, but U.S. officials acknowledged privately that Aristide was told that if he remained in Haiti, U.S. forces would not protect him from rebels who wanted him put on trial on allegations of murder and corruption.