Britain urges nationals to leave Haiti as rebel leaders prepare to take the capital

Andrew Gumbel
Wednesday 25 February 2004 01:00

The British government urged all of its nationals in Haiti to leave the country yesterday before armed rebels who have taken over more than half the country launch a final offensive on the capital, Port-au-Prince.

With the opposition rejecting a political settlement that offered the last hope to persuade the rebels to halt their advance, the Foreign Office warned that the situation throughout the country had become "highly volatile". It added: "We advise against all travel to Haiti and all British nationals are advised to leave the country if they can do so safely."

The number of British expatriates is modest ­ about 70, the Foreign Office estimates ­ and they were apparently heeding the warning. The local representative for Christian Aid, Helen Spraos, a Briton, was said by her staff to be on a plane for London.

Hopes for an 11th-hour political solution to the three-week-old anti-government uprising were dashed late last night when opposition leaders rejected an internationally brokered compromise deal that would have left in power the embattled President, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, while appointing a consensus prime minister and a new cabinet representing the whole political spectrum.

"There will be no more delays. Our answer remains the same. Aristide must resign," an opposition spokesman, Maurice Lafortune, told reporters.

President Aristide refused to stand down. He told a news conference that the world could expect thousands of dead if fighting came to Port-au-Prince. He urged the international community to help ward off disaster by offering reinforcements to Haiti's weak 5,000-man police force ­ an unlikely scenario in the absence of a political settlement.

The opposition's rejection of the settlement proposal was a stinging defeat for Colin Powell, the US Secretary of State, who negotiated on behalf of the Organisation of American States and the Caribbean community group Caricom. The Bush administration is under increasing criticism at home for what detractors, including the Democratic presidential frontrunner John Kerry, are characterising as a lukewarm attempt to stave off civil war.

Mr Aristide accepted the Powell plan on Saturday, but opposition leaders could not bring themselves to cut a deal with a leader they openly despise. At issue is a complex web of political considerations. The opposition, which is weak and divided, did not initiate the armed rebellion ­ the first uprising came from disenchanted former supporters of the President ­ and it is not clear whether opposition leaders have made contact with the former army officers and former death squad commanders who have returned from exile in the Dominican Republic to lead the military operation against the president.

Officially, the opposition is taking the high moral ground, saying it does not want to negotiate either with the President and his armed street gangs or with the military insurgents. "We feel crushed between two armed movements, the armed movement holding the north and the one terrorising us here, the criminal government in the national palace," said Andre Apaid of the Group of 184.

Unofficially, however, it appears that the opposition would prefer to do business with the military commanders ­ the kind who propped up the Duvalier dictatorship from the 1950s to the 1980s and who, with CIA support, imposed their authority through ruthless political repression after the 1991 coup that toppled Mr Aristide after his first election as president.

The immediate upshot is a growing likelihood of civil war. The charity ActionAid said yesterday that food supplies in the capital were already under strain. It warned that many poorer families could starve if their income from day labour was choked off by the unrest. Its Haiti director, Edèle Thébaud, said: "They do not have cash to buy food to store. That is the reality for about 75 per cent of the people in Port-au-Prince."

With only one hospital functioning, the charity also worried that health services would be unable to cope with any significant degree of fighting. It called for immediate strengthening of local health clinics.

Street gangs loyal to President Aristide have set up barricades on the roads coming into Port-au-Prince and have already thwarted one attack in the northern suburbs over the weekend. They are heavily armed with semi-automatic weapons and are likely to put up a much tougher fight than the police in Cap-Haitien, the country's second-largest city, who holed themselves up in their stations or fled when the rebels turned up on Saturday.

The rebel leaders appeared to be content yesterday to consolidate their gains before making their push on Port-au-Prince.

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