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International Delegation to Visit Haiti Saturday - 2004-02-20

An international delegation from the United States, Canada, France and the Caribbean grouping CARICOM will go to Haiti Saturday to give President Jean-Bertrand Aristide and his political rivals a plan aimed at defusing the country's political crisis. The plan is said to complement the existing set of peace proposals from CARICOM.

The decision to dispatch the multi-lateral team to Haiti was announced in Ottawa by Canadian Foreign Minister Bill Graham, and it followed a set of urgent conference calls among U.S., Canadian, French and Caribbean officials Thursday on the Haitian crisis.

In a radio interview, Secretary of State Colin Powell said there was a "solid consensus" among the concerned parties about the confidence-building steps contained in the package. He said if both Mr. Aristide and the political opposition accept and start implementing it, then "we might find a way through this crisis politically."

Officials here said the plan complements and provides specific steps toward the implementation of the existing CARICOM settlement package, which among other things calls for the disarmament of rival gangs in Haiti, and the naming of a new prime minister and broad-based government advisory council to lead the country to new elections.

In his interview, with the ABC radio network, Mr. Powell said the United States and its partners want the current crisis resolved in a "constitutional manner," and are not calling for the early departure from office of Mr. Aristide, whose current term runs until 2006. But at the same time, he said they would not an oppose such a development if it was the product of negotiations among the Haitian parties.

"That's not an element of the plan, because under the constitution, he is the president for some time to come yet," he said. "You know, if an agreement is reached that moves that in another direction, that's fine. But right now, he has no intention to step down. And since he is the elected leader of Haiti, we should not be putting forward a plan that would require him to step down."

Some opposition leaders have demanded that Mr. Aristide step down, though he said Thursday he would rather die defending his country than leave office.

U.S. officials have drawn a distinction between the country's mainstream political opposition and the armed gangs that have seized control of several of Haiti's main towns, some of which they say were formerly allied with Mr. Aristide. Scores of people have been killed in street violence since uprising began two weeks ago.

Because of the violence, the State Department issued a new travel warning for Haiti Thursday advising U.S. citizens to defer travel to Haiti, and urging those now in the country to depart "at their first safe opportunity."

In a separate development, the Defense Department said it was sending a military team to Haiti to assess the security of the U.S. embassy in Port-au-Prince, which has imposed a curfew restricting staff and family members to their homes, except in daylight hours.