President plays it cool over invasion

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WASHINGTON - Amid reports of a split among his own advisers, and rumours of a peace initiative by three Latin American countries, President Bill Clinton has indicated that any US-led invasion to oust the military regime in Haiti is still some weeks off, writes Rupert Cornwell.

Pressed at a news conference in Washington on whether he would seek prior congressional approval for an invasion, Mr Clinton said it would be 'premature' to do so now. This followed a non-binding but impressively unanimous 100-0 vote in the Senate, pointing out that congressional approval was required, despite the UN vote last weekend authorising the use of force to restore the former Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

'I think we've done all we need to,' Mr Clinton said, reiterating the administration line that the choice facing General Raoul Cedras and his colleagues was simply whether they left power voluntarily or involuntarily. There was no need to 'cross that bridge (of congressional approval) until we come to it. It would be premature to go beyond that now.'

Attempting to counter widespread public opposition to intervention in Haiti, the President for the first time spelt out the US stake in Haiti. Apart from the regime's repressive policies and human rights violations, Washington had to take account of 'thousands' of Americans in Haiti and 1 million Haitians in the US. Washington had an interest in promoting democracy in the hemisphere, said Mr Clinton. Although 33 of 35 countries in the region now had popularly elected governments, many were 'fragile'.

Complicating matters further are signs of disagreement within the administration, at a high-level White House meeting on Tuesday. As reported by the New York Times, the State Department, in the shape of Deputy Secretary Strobe Talbott, argued for a fixed deadline for the Haitian junta to surrender power. William Perry, the Defense Secretary, however, strongly opposed a deadline.

The Pentagon prefers a more flexible stance, to allow any diplomatic initiative time to work. Earlier this week, Chile, Venezuela and Uruguay agreed to send a team to Port-au-Prince to work out a deal. But General Cedras said yesterday that no formal overtures had been received and that these should be addressed to the acting President, Emile Jonassaint, who is virtually unrecognised outside Haiti. In the meantime tensions inside the country continue.

Further murders have been reported of political opponents of the regime. And three US television journalists were being deported yesterday. The three, the first foreign journalists to be expelled, are accused of filming in a banned 'strategic zone' near Port- au-Prince airport.