Haiti: Military rulers hail accord as 'victory of David over Goliath': Relief on all sides and plaudits for Carter as bloodshed is averted, but Aristide's supporters fear worst is yet to come

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The Independent Online
WHEN BURSTS of gunfire echoed around Port-au-Prince in the early hours of yesterday, US television crews who had just arrived thought the firing was to intimidate the US armed forces who were expected to move in. In fact, the shooting was largely celebratory.

In the latest battle between what the Haitian de facto government had billed as a David-and-Goliath confrontation, the mighty US had been humbled. The Haitian leaders did not say so but the Port-au-Prince accord was seen by their supporters as a brilliant tactical victory over US might.

Mr Clinton and the men he first said he despised, then negotiated with, may have avoided an immediate confrontation. But the future of the elected and exiled President Jean-Bertrand Aristide has hardly been guaranteed. Fr Aristide's supporters were stunned, fearing he had been sacrificed once more.

Haiti's de facto President, Emile Jonassaint, appeared on Haitian television shortly before midnight to hail the accord as a victory for Haiti. Few Haitians were watching as the television crackled into life after a long programmeless pause. 'The unjustified embargo will be lifted without delay,' he said, although Mr Clinton in his statement on Sunday had made no reference to the trade embargo aimed at forcing Haiti's generals from power. Mr Jonassaint said only that 'certain officers' would retire early. He praised General Raoul Cedras as 'a man of his word, a man of courage'.

Mr Clinton claimed the Carter-brokered deal had saved bloodshed. Perhaps. But it represented a total about-face for Mr Clinton that could haunt him for the rest of his term. He assuaged his critics, perhaps satisfied his supporters but left a small problem - that of Haiti's future - up in the air.

In Port-au-Prince's poor Carrefour district, an Aristide stronghold, most said they could not see how Fr Aristide could return under the deal. 'By negotiating with this government, they recognised it as a government,' said Jean-Luc, 21. 'We're more frightened after this agreement than before.'

Independent Haitians wondered whether staged demonstrations by illiterate unemployed people during the US visit had influenced Mr Clinton's three-man negotiating team of Jimmy Carter, General Colin Powell and Senator Sam Nunn. Tens of thousands have fled to the countryside, leaving the capital deserted, while others are laying low for fear of bloodshed. This meant that the three Americans were unable to get any sense of popular national feeling. Almost 70 per cent of Haitians voted for Fr Aristide in 1991 but his supporters are silent in the face of terror.

The celebratory gunfire from paramilitary thugs showed that what the US President hours before had called 'the most brutal regime in the Western hemisphere' was alive, kicking and delighted.

Mr Clinton has backed down on his demand that Haiti's top three military chiefs, whom he accused of rape and torture, must leave the country. Instead, they are to step down on 15 October. The date, probably chosen by the military chiefs, had a painful significance for Haiti's pro-Aristide majority. General Cedras had once before pledged to step down on the same date last year under a UN deal. He disregarded that accord, which allowed for Fr Aristide's return, and has remained in power since. Mr Carter and his team have returned Haiti diplomatically to square one.

The Carter agreement was a product of Mr Clinton's domestic political concerns. To an American public wary of an invasion, he could justifiably claim success. But the vague, patchwork deal hammered out in surreal talks here between Haiti's 'brutal' leaders and the US team could lead to disaster in Haiti. Aristide supporters were stunned by Mr Clinton's U-turn on his key demand - that the three top military chiefs leave the country. They will now only step down - as they had promised long before. A White House spokesmen said that leaving the country was no longer part of the deal.

Fr Aristide's supporters here are lying low because General Cedras's people and plainclothes gunmen in straw hats, headbands and sunglasses still control most of the country. Fr Aristide might have trouble returning to Haiti while the generals who overthrew him remain here under the benevolent eye of the US, they believe.

'There's no way Aristide can come back now,' said Jean-Claude, 28, an Aristide supporter. 'The US has made a pact with the devil, an agreement with his worst enemies, because they don't think Haiti is worth an American life. Bill Clinton has made a big mistake. He has tried to impress those behind him with his moves. But the chessboard is Haiti and all the pieces are here.'

(Photograph omitted)