I'm still president, says a defiant Aristide

Andrew Gumbel
Tuesday 09 March 2004 01:00

Jean-Bertrand Aristide insisted yesterday he was still the legitimate president of Haiti and accused the United States of acquiescing in a coup d'état in which criminals and "terrorists" were being allowed to take over and "destroy the dream" of democracy in the western hemisphere's poorest country.

Mr Aristide was able to call a news conference and talk by telephone to the BBC for the first time since being escorted out of Haiti and flown to the Central African Republic (CAR) eight days ago under less than transparent circumstances.

He reiterated his charge, previously made in conversations to sympathetic US Congress members, that his removal from Port-au-Prince, the Haitian capital, was tantamount to a kidnapping. He accused the Americans of lying to him as they escorted him out of his private residence and whisked him to the airport in the early hours of 28 February. And he claimed, somewhat disingenuously, that he and his supporters were unambiguous champions of democracy and peace, assailed by "drug dealers and killers".

"In order for peace to reign, one must speak the truth, and that is why I have spoken of a political abduction," Mr Aristide told a small group of reporters at his guest house in the grounds of the presidential palace in Bangui, the CAR's capital. "Far from my own country, but in deep communion with all Haitians, including Haitians abroad, I continue to launch an appeal for peaceful resistance."

Controversy has raged about the precise circumstances of Mr Aristide's departure, with US officials insisting he was the one who asked for safe passage out of Haiti after it was made clear to him that, with armed rebels moving swiftly towards Port-au-Prince, his safety could no longer be guaranteed. He signed a letter of resignation, the Americans said, which he handed over to a senior diplomat shortly before boarding his plane.

But in his interview with the BBC's World at One, Mr Aristide was unequivocal. "It was a kidnapping," he said. "They elected me to have a democratic process. They should not destroy their dream by kidnapping me." He said he was not able to address the press, as he claimed he had been told he could, and was kept in the dark about his destination. "American military and others with terrorist killers ... took me from my house in their car and put me in a plane where we spent 20 hours without knowing where they were going," he said. He characterised this as "a violation of international law".

It is not clear how much of Mr Aristide's story is genuine, and how much of it is an attempt to save face in the wake of his humiliating removal from power. His talk of "peaceful resistance" is contradicted by plentiful evidence on the ground in Haiti that his supporters are heavily armed with semi-automatic weapons. Unconfirmed reports suggest that Sunday's eruption of violence at an anti-Aristide demonstration outside the presidential palace in Port-au-Prince, in which at least six people were killed and dozens injured, was triggered by a pro-Aristide sniper positioned on the roof of a cinema.

Mr Aristide modified an earlier statement that he was being held as a "prisoner" in the Central African Republic, saying he was being treated "the right way" by his hosts, who he described as gracious, and that he merely felt like a prisoner when he first arrived. That could have been an admission that his earlier rhetoric was exaggerated, or a nod to his hosts in exchange for access to the media.

On Sunday, one US delegation of Aristide supporters reported being denied access to Mr Aristide, despite clearing their visit in advance with the CAR's foreign minister.

The Bush administration's handling of the Haiti crisis has come in for mounting domestic criticism, with several observers questioning the White House's lack of qualms about seeing the democratically elected president deposed.

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