Aristide's moment of decision: 'Live or die'

"Come with us or stay. Live or die." These, apparently, were the two options handed down to Jean-Bertrand Aristide, Haiti's former president, in the hurried early hours on Sunday as he contemplated the enforced end to his rule.

He had no real choice but to go into exile. The US, which critics say had undermined the democratically elected leader for many years, had made clear it no longer supported him. Shortly before dawn on Sunday, Luis Moreno, the deputy chief of the American embassy, and a group of heavily armed marines were telling him it was time to go.

"We conveyed the sense that the security situation was breaking down, that there had already been infiltration of the city by the rebels and that if there is fighting in the city we will not be in a situation to guarantee the President's safe departure," said a Bush administration official. The official claimed: "Our actions saved his life and saved the life of his wife, and in the course of that, saved hundreds of lives."

What really happened in those dark hours at the Presidential Palace remains contested. The US Secretary of State, Colin Powell, has denied claims made by the Haitian leader that he was forced out by Washington. "The allegations that we somehow kidnapped President Aristide are absolutely baseless, absurd," he said.

What is becoming clear is that the departure of Mr Aristide had been inevitable for some time. Some supporters of the former president contend that the Bush administration's entire policy towards Haiti had ensured it would be extremely difficult for Mr Aristide to survive, but Washington's decision that it would no longer publicly support him had been made by Wednesday last week.

Officials say that by then, General Powell and the Canadian Foreign Minister, Bill Graham, had agreed privately that Mr Aristide should go. France, Haiti's former colonial ruler, had reached a similar decision earlier in the week. The following day, Gen Powell hinted strongly at this, openly questioning whether Mr Aristide could effectively govern the country. Last Friday, George Bush decided the US would provide a security force for Haiti if there was a successful transfer of power to an interim government. On Saturday, rebel leaders, in constant contact with Washington, said they would abide by a US embassy request not to enter Port-au-Prince, but only for a limited time.

The most important statement signifying that the end was near came at 9pm on Saturday when the White House publicly questioned Mr Aristide's ability to continue. With rebel forces marching towards the capital, the former Franciscan priest clearly knew his time was up. Dispatching an aide to the US embassy he asked the ambassador, Thomas Foley, what would happen to him and his ministers if he were to leave and whether he could chose his destination.

Behind the scenes, a flurry of diplomatic activity was taking place. Gen Powell reportedly logged 50 calls to international leaders and diplomats between 10pm and 8am as they sought a place of asylum for the former priest. Mr Foley's reply to Mr Aristide was much more to the point: "If he wanted us to guarantee his safe departure, he'd better make up his mind soon."

It is the details of the end-game that are most disputed. The US claims that at 4.30am, officials arrived at Mr Aristide's residence and escorted him to the deserted international airport in a convoy of eight vehicles. At the airport the former president handed Mr Moreno - rather than a Haitian official - his letter of resignation.

Mr Aristide disputes this portrayal of events. "They were telling me that if I don't leave they would start shooting, and be killing in a matter of time. They came at night ... There were too many. I couldn't count them," he said from Bangui, Central African Republic.

Other witnesses have supported Mr Aristide's claim. An elderly caretaker at the residence described similar events while yesterday an American missionary added his weight to claims that the Haitian leader was forced out. Father Michael Graves, an Orthodox missionary from New Jersey who has preached in Haiti for 18 years, told The Independent from Port-au-Prince: "I have spoken to many witnesses who said the President was kidnapped. Police officers at the Presidential Palace said that he was escorted out at gunpoint. They forced him to sign something - this evidently is the statement they have that they say is his resignation."

A senior bodyguard of Mr Aristide also said the former president was forced to leave the country early on Sunday by heavily armed foreign soldiers. The security man, 35, is in hiding in Port-au-Prince for fear of his life. He said the soldiers were "white, I think American, but to be honest they could have been Canadian. I couldn't really tell the difference. They were in tropical civilian clothes but wearing flak jackets and carrying assault rifles." He told his story through a mutual friend and said he was sure he would be assassinated by the victorious Haitian rebels, if found.

Father Graves, who claimed he was a friend of Mr Aristide, said: "I am outraged the US has stepped into a sovereign country, a fledgling democracy, and forced out a leader who was elected ... Whether he was good or bad how can we claim to be bastions of democracy...?"

If the US was at least partly responsible for Mr Aristide's departure, concerns about Haiti's relationship with Washington are now making the Central African Republic nervous about the ex-president's claims of kidnap. "The authorities have already called on Aristide to remain calm, to stop making accusations against America," said the CAR's Foreign Minister, Charles Wenezoui. "This kind of declaration compromises relations between the Central African Republic and the United States."

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