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Diplomats Intensify Peace Efforts in Haiti - 2004-02-21

Diplomatic efforts are intensifying Saturday to resolve a violent uprising in Haiti that has killed at least 55 people.

A team of senior international diplomats is arriving in the Caribbean island nation, with the hope of ending the past two weeks of bloodshed. The envoys' mission is to get President Jean-Bertrand Aristide and Haiti's opposition to accept a peace plan agreed on Friday.

Senior officials from the United States, Canada, France and the 15-nation Caribbean Community are expected to take part in talks Saturday in Port-au-Prince, the Haitian capital.

The internationally-backed peace plan calls for appointment of a neutral prime minister and an interim governing council to advise President Aristide. Street gangs allied to Haiti's opposing political factions also are to be disarmed.

Initial reactions to the peace plan have been hesitant. Rebel groups are demanding that Mr. Aristide step down, and they have threatened to take over the capital unless he resigns. Mr. Aristide says he would rather die than give up his term as president, which is due to last two more years.

Pro-Aristide gangs attacked anti-government protesters in Port-au-Prince Friday, and at least 14 people were injured during the clash.

Despite the current turmoil, annual carnival celebrations are getting under way in Haiti. Mr. Aristide has decreed this year's pre-Lenten holiday will last five days, in part to mark the 200th anniversary of Haiti's independence.

The desperately poor Caribbean nation has been torn by political dissensions since disputed legislative elections more than three years ago late in 2000.

Clashes between police and rebels this year began on February 5, when insurgents overran police and seized control of the port city of Gonaives, 150 kilometers north of Port-au-Prince. Over the past two weeks, the rebels have expanded their reach to southeastern and central portions of the country.