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Aristide Says He'd Rather Die Than Leave Office Under Rebel Pressure - 2004-02-20

Haiti's embattled president says he is prepared to die rather than give in to rebel demands that he leave office.

President Jean-Bertrand Aristide spoke bluntly at a memorial ceremony for police officers killed in battles with rebels who launched a revolt earlier this month.

Mr. Ariside, whose term in office ends in 2006, said that he, too, is ready to die if that is what he must do to defend his country. The Haitian leader called on his nation's small, five-thousand strong police force to join with citizens in defending democracy from combatants that he blasted as terrorists.

The rebels, who describe themselves as disillusioned one-time backers of Mr. Aristide, control key towns in Haiti's central and northern regions. Dozens of police officers are among those who have been killed in two weeks of fighting. Scores of other officers have abandoned their posts, allowing rebels to take control of some municipalities uncontested. Haiti abolished its armed forces a decade ago.

Meanwhile, the Bush administration is urging U.S. citizens to leave Haiti while commercial flights to and from the country are still operating. The State Department says Peace Corps volunteers are being withdrawn, as are non-essential personnel at the U.S. Embassy in Port-au-Prince. The State Department advised that the embassy's ability to provide emergency services outside the capital has been severely curtailed.

The United States, along with the Caribbean Community, CARICOM, and the Organization of American States, are pushing for a negotiated solution to the strife in Haiti. Thursday, the OAS passed a resolution calling on President Aristide to respect human rights and to comply with proposals put forth by CARICOM and others.