Chaos on the streets after Aristide flees Haiti for exile

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The Independent US

American and French troops were en route to Haiti last night after President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the former Catholic priest once hailed by the masses as their saviour, fled into exile, leaving the impoverished nation in chaos.

President George Bush ordered US Marines to Port-au-Prince as the capital city erupted in an orgy of violence, with Mr Aristide's opponents celebrating and his supporters expressing outrage that he had been forced out at the behest of Washington. The head of Haiti's Supreme Court, Boniface Alexandre, reluctantly assumed power as interim President. "This will not be easy for me. I do this because the constitution demands it. Politics is not my best aspect," he said.

As the US-choreographed strategy unfolded, up to 500 marines, the vanguard of an international force being hastily pulled together, were expected to arrive overnight while the French President, Jacques Chirac, said a company of about 140 troops were due to arrive later today.

Meanwhile, in the power vacuum created by Mr Aristide's enforced departure, hundreds of gunmen, most of them apparently pro-Aristide, poured on to the streets of the capital and drove or walked around shooting at anything that moved.

Worse could follow if the leader of the rebel forces, Guy Philippe, does not honour the undertaking he made yesterday to co-operate with the international forces and abide by the political process.

The democratically elected Mr Aristide left the deserted international airport at 6.15am on a private flight organised by the US after America and France, the former colonial power, made clear they felt he should resign. In a statement authorised by Mr Bush and released on Saturday night, the White House in effect signalled the end of the former Franciscan priest. "This long-simmering crisis is largely of Mr Aristide's making," it said.

Only hours after issuing a defiant statement declaring his intention to remain in office, Mr Aristide left quietly, saying he was resigning to "prevent bloodshed". Mr Bush said: "I have ordered the deployment of marines as the leading element of an international force to help bring about order and stability to Haiti. It's the beginning of a new chapter."

Diplomats said that UN Security Council members would immediately begin talks about a resolution to authorise an international force for Haiti and to draw up a political settlement involving the various opposition parties that had seized on the uprising by rebels to pressure Mr Aristide. Many of the opposition groups have received considerable funding from right-wing US interests.

"Informal discussions are in the process of starting that could materialise in a more formal meeting of the Security Council as soon as Monday," said a French Foreign Ministry spokeswoman.

But in the immediate absence of an international force, chaos continued in Port-au-Prince. Explosions rang out and palls of smoke rose around the city as people braved the wild gunfire to loot or destroy downtown businesses.

Gunmen fired on a hotel full of foreign journalists and wounded one man at the gate. There was no sign of Mr Aristide's small police force, which has either disappeared or done nothing to halt several weeks of violence around the country.

Mr Aristide, a central player in the overthrow of the Duvalier dictatorship in 1986, surged to power in 1991 after five years of pro-Duvalier military rule.

He had to flee to the US later that year after a military coup against him, but was restored three years later after President Bill Clinton sent 20,000 American troops and the Haitian military backed down. The Haitian army was disbanded by Mr Aristide, but several former officers are among the rebels who first took the north of the country earlier this month and are now surrounding the capital.

In the northern city of Cap-Haitien, controlled by the rebels, people emerged into the streets to celebrate as news of Mr Aristide's early-morning departure filtered out. Rebels in the city said they would lay down their arms once Haiti had a new government.

Mr Aristide, whose father was lynched in a voodoo dispute, was escorted to the plane by US security officials. Several of his security guards accompanied him. It was not clear whether his wife, Mildred, was with him, and his destination was unclear. They had sent their two children to the US last week. Reports said his plane refuelled in Antigua en route to South Africa, but the government there denied he was heading that way. Costa Rica said it had offered Mr Aristide temporary asylum but that he had opted for Africa. Panama also offered asylum.