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US Calls For Political Solution in Haiti - 2004-02-11

The United States renewed its call Tuesday for an end to violence and a political solution to the crisis in Haiti. The State Department said a settlement would involve thorough reform of the way Haiti is governed, though it did not call for the early departure from office of embattled President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

The unrest in Haiti is being followed with concern by senior U.S. officials, including Secretary of State Colin Powell, who discussed the situation by phone with Canadian Foreign Minister Bill Graham and at a meeting with Haiti's incoming ambassador to Washington, Raymond Valcin.

At a news briefing, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said Mr. Powell used what was nominally a "courtesy call" by the Haitian diplomat to press the Aristide government to accept peace-making efforts of the Caribbean grouping (CARICOM), and seek a political solution of the crisis.

"There needs to be a political solution and that's only going to be gained by dialogue, negotiations and compromise," said Mr. Boucher. "It's also going to involve some rather thorough-going reforms in the way the government is run out there, the way Haiti is governed. But in the end, we think that's a solution to calming the situation and ending the climate of violence that has grown up over the past few years, and which is seen so horribly in these most recent events."

The spokesman did not elaborate on envisaged reforms in Port-au-Prince. But a senior diplomat who spoke to reporters said this could indeed involve "changes in [Mr.] Aristide's position," though he also said the United States was not calling on him to step down.

Caribbean leaders have been pressing a peace plan that would include a commitment by Mr. Aristide not to seek re-election in 2006. In the meantime, a new prime minister would be appointed and a broad-based government advisory council named to help lead the country to new elections. Haiti has been at a political impasse since disputed legislative elections in 2000.

In his remarks here, spokesman Boucher drew a distinction between Haiti's mainstream opposition parties, who he said have advocated peaceful change and protests, and the armed gangs who seized control of major towns in recent days, burning police posts and looting.

"The political opposition has not been associated directly with these gangs," he said. "The origin appears to be in other groups, and sometimes in groups that in the past were supported by people associated with the government. So the opposition needs to maintain a peaceful stance, needs to continue to disassociate itself from these gangs and the violence, and to continue to seek a peaceful and negotiated solution."

Haiti has been wracked by anti-government protests since last September, often put down by security forces and armed Aristide supporters. The unrest has escalated markedly this month, with more than 40 deaths reported in the last five days.