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Aristide seeks British help to return to Haiti

A FLAVOUR of the uncertain world of Caribbean politics came to London yesterday, when Father Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the exiled President of Haiti, paid an (unofficial) visit to the capital that almost ended before it had begun.

Fr Aristide was one of the left-wing luminaries who took part in a not-the-500th-anniversary-of-Columbus's-voyage-to-the-New-World rally in Liverpool at the weekend that was billed as an alternative to the Tall Ships sailing by on the Mersey. He was also a guest of Liverpool's mayor and took part in an ecumenical service at the Roman Catholic cathedral.

As the recognised head of state of Haiti, he was met by the Queen's representative at Manchester airport, received an escort of police outriders to Liverpool and conferred with Baroness Chalker, the Minister for Overseas Development.

So far so good. But when it came to the unofficial, London part of his visit - television interviews, press conference, reception, etc - it was a different story. The Aristide entourage took fright at the apparent lack of security in the capital and threatened to call the whole thing off.

The police pointed out that it was not an official visit and they did not think an attempt on Fr Aristide's life was very likely. The Haitians would perhaps have preferred machine-gun toting officers on every corner - understandable in view of the nine attempts on Fr Aristide's life back in Haiti.

The entire delegation was on the point of taking a plane back to Washington yesterday morning, but was finally persuaded to stay if all meetings took place in Fr Aristide's hotel suite, including a call from a senior Foreign Office official, Mark Lennox-Boyd.

Whatever his concerns earlier in the day, by yesterday evening Fr Aristide was in mellow mood. He had had a 'beautiful conversation' with Mr Lennox-Boyd, and had been told that Britain, as president of the European Community, might send a representative to join a mission to Port-au-Prince later this week from the Organisation of American States. The OAS is trying to negotiate Fr Aristide's return to Haiti.

In the meantime, this dignified, quietly spoken man remains a statesman without a state. Fr Aristide briefly bucked the trend towards neo-liberalism that has swept the entire region when his reformist movement won presidential elections by a landslide in February 1991.

But he lasted only seven months before the military deposed him and he fled abroad. Since then he has travelled the world 'building solidarity'. When asked yesterday how the international community could bring about the removal of 'the thugs who led the coup' he shrugged and said: 'All it would take is a phone call.'