Jimmy Carter sent to persuade Haiti junta to surrender power

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IN A last-minute attempt to avoid invading Haiti, President Bill Clinton is to send the former president Jimmy Carter to see the country's military leaders. He will be part of a high-level delegation which will try to persuade the Haitian army commanders to step down voluntarily.

The White House said last night that the Haitian military had agreed to discuss the terms of their departure, but sources in Port-au-Prince said the delegation would be welcome if it had come 'to arbitrate and not to execute'. That implies that the Haitian leaders will seek to negotiate the terms of departure and possibly try to stay in Haiti, or seek other concessions.

Mr Clinton has asked the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Colin Powell, and the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Sam Nunn, to join the delegation, which will leave for Port-au-Prince as quickly as possible.

Mr Carter, who played a key role in resolving the crisis over North Korea's nuclear programme, is likely to restate an earlier message by the US offering the military leaders sanctuary in a third country and access to their frozen bank accounts.

General Raoul Cedras, the army commander, had previously rejected Mr Clinton's demand that he give up power and leave the country. White House officials say they believe the police chief, Michel Francois, is willing to go - and has sent his wife and children to the Dominican Republic - but will do so only if General Cedras and the chief of Staff, General Philippe Biamby, do likewise.

Polls show a majority of Americans are still against intervening in Haiti, despite Mr Clinton's justification of the invasion and call for support in his address to the nation this week. But opposition is weakening, according to an ABC poll, which shows those who oppose the use of force down from 73 per cent to 60 per cent.

Earlier in the day Mr Clinton also received a boost when the exiled Haitian President, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, offered an amnesty to his opponents and said he sought reconciliation. He repeated three times at a meeting in the White House: 'We say 'no' to vengeance, we say 'no' to retaliation, again, and again, day after day . . . Let us embrace peace.'

Promising not to seek the presidency again when his term in office ends in 1996, he said the time for peace was now, and laid out in detail his plans for economic development and reform of the security services. He said the return of security and stability would guarantee a return to prosperity, adding that this would automatically end the exodus of Haitian boat people.

If Mr Carter's mission fails, then the invasion could still come, in which case the US would succeed in occupying the island 'in a matter of hours', according to the Clinton administration. But the US has gone out of its way to underline that its involvement in Haiti would be limited.

'Our military task is simply to separate the leadership from the military forces,' the Defence Secretary, William Perry, said earlier yesterday. 'We do not have any orders or directions to hunt down those leaders.' He added that if the US did find the Haitian leaders, they would be handed over to the newly-restored Haitian government of Fr Aristide.

US forces still remain poised for an invasion which, until last night, had seemed likely any time after tomorrow evening, going by the timing of the Pentagon's arrangements for the media to reach its aircraft carriers off the Haitian coast. Delay beyond the first few days of next week would risk opposition to the invasion from both houses of Congress.