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Senior State Department Official Visits Haiti

The State Department's third-ranking official led a U.S. delegation on a visit to Haiti Tuesday. The one-day mission by Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns was to underline U.S. support for Haiti's presidential and legislative elections next month.

The United States has high hopes that the January 8 elections will help put Haiti on a path to stability after the violence and political turmoil that have plagued the Caribbean country in recent years.

Mr. Burns' trip, announced only after he departed for Port-au-Prince, is the latest in a series of high-level U.S. visits that included a similar mission by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in late September.

Haitians are to go to the polls to elect a new president and parliament to replace the interim administration that has run the country since former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide left in February of 2004 in the face of an armed uprising.

Mr. Aristide's Lavalas party remains a powerful force in the country and an Aristide protégé, former president Rene Preval, is considered the front runner in the presidential race.

Mr. Preval has said that, if elected, he would not oppose a return of Mr. Aristide from exile in South Africa, a move some experts believe could mean renewed unrest.

Asked about that prospect at a news briefing, State Department Spokesman Sean McCormack said that during her Haiti visit Secretary Rice and others in her delegation detected little or no support for a return by the former leader.

He said U.S. officials believe Haitians are looking forward to a different kind of future, and that is what the United States and other countries assisting Haiti are trying to help achieve:

"Mr. Aristide left of his own volition. He is now in South Africa. I haven't seen any indication that he is going to be returning to Haiti. And I think the Haitian people are looking beyond their recent past, again which had been unfortunately marked by violence, factionalism, cronyism, non-transparent governance and corruption, and they're trying to turn a new page in their history," he said.

Mr. Burns had meetings with the Haitian interim administration, members of the business community and civil society and with officials of the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti.

The 88-hundred member U.N. mission has helped keep the peace since its arrival in June of last year.

News reports from Port-au-Prince say a Canadian police officer with the U.N. force was killed Tuesday in an ambush in a slum neighborhood on the outskirts of the capital.

Armed gangs believed linked to Mr. Aristide have engaged in near-daily clashes with members of the U.N. mission and there are fears they may try to disrupt next month's elections.

Mr. Aristide denies fomenting violence, but maintains he was forced from office by the United States and some supporters say he is still Haiti's rightful leader.