By Arshad Mohammed and Simon Gardner
PORT-AU-PRINCE (Reuters) – Haiti vowed on Monday to hold presidential elections in 2005, and visiting Secretary of State Colin Powell (news – web sites) pledged U.S. support to help the poorest country in the Americas start over after a bloody revolt.
Interim Prime Minister Gerard Latortue told a news conference with Powell at Port-au-Prince’s heavily guarded airport Haiti’s next president would take the reins in February 2006 — when ousted ex-President Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s term was originally due to end.
Powell, the first high-ranking U.S. official to visit Haiti since Aristide went into exile on Feb. 29, hit back at critics who say President Bush (news – web sites)’s administration failed to support the former leader and pressured him to resign.
He also rejected a call by the 15-nation Caribbean Community for a probe into Aristide’s ouster.
“It was only six weeks ago that Haiti was on the verge of … total security collapse. On that last weekend in February, I believe we prevented a bloodbath from happening,” Powell said as soldiers patrolled nearby with M-16s at the ready.
“Our purpose is to help the people and leadership of Haiti make a new beginning,” he added, calling on armed gangs and rebels who led the revolt against Aristide to lay down arms. “Without disarmament, Haiti’s democracy will remain at risk.”
Powell said he and Latortue had discussed “the importance of getting guns off the street and … out of the hands of thugs and criminals.”
The Secretary of State did not make clear if he was specifically referring to the armed gangs and human rights violators who led the revolt. Powell called them “thugs” before Aristide’s overthrow, but Latortue has since hailed them as “freedom fighters.”
PATROLS GO ON
Shortly before Powell’s arrival, rights watchdog Human Rights Watch urged him to pressure the new Haitian leaders into ensuring justice was “even-handed” and not “political.”
“The contrast between the Haitian government’s eagerness to prosecute former Aristide officials and its indifference to the abusive record of certain rebel leaders could not be more stark,” said Joanne Mariner of its Americas Division.
U.S. Marines spearheading a 3,600-strong U.N.-sanctioned peacekeeping force continued regular daily patrols around the slum-ridden capital, and said all was calm.
Downtown Port-au-Prince was paralyzed by the customary traffic gridlock and street vendors laid out fruit and vegetables by gutters flowing with raw sewage and trash near an AIDS (news – web sites) clinic that Powell visited.
Potshots at Marines by marauding street gangs have petered out in the weeks following Aristide’s overthrow. Locals greet patrols with smiles and a “bonjour!,” and say they feel safer.
But former Prime Minister Yvon Neptune, living in hiding after receiving death threats, appealed to the United States to stamp out what supporters of Aristide’s Lavalas Family party say is a witch-hunt against them.
“I call on the U.S. to guarantee the freedom of expression and (political) association,” Neptune said by phone.
Aristide became Haiti’s first freely elected leader in 1991 but was pushed out by a coup. He was restored by a U.S.-led intervention in 1994 and won a second term in 2000.
Accused by political foes of corruption and human rights violations, he was pressured to leave Haiti by the United States and other nations after the armed revolt broke out in February.