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Haiti's Aristide Flees into Exile - 2004-02-29

Haiti's embattled president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, has fled into exile and a new president has been sworn in as thousands of multi-national troops prepared to arrive the Caribbean nation to halt a breakdown of law and order. Haitian officials and foreign diplomats in the capital are calling for rebels to lay down their arms.

Jean Bertrand Aristide bowed to international pressure and a rebel advance threatening his capital, and left Port-au-Prince at dawn. Shortly afterwards, Haiti's Prime Minister Yvon Neptune told journalists the president had departed to spare his country further bloodshed. "He did say that it was to avoid a bloodbath to leave office before the end of his mandate. It is with his understanding that the constitution must be respected and should be respected, and it is with the hope that the constitution not be betrayed that he decided and accepted to make such a great sacrifice," he said.

Just hours before he left Haiti, President Aristide insisted he would remain as president. Late Saturday, White House officials issued a statement that said Mr. Aristide's failure to adhere to democratic principles had contributed to violence and called into question his fitness to govern Haiti.

During the past several days, pro-Aristide gangs paralyzed Port-au-Prince, erecting barricades that shut down the city and engaging in widespread looting and violence against the city's population.

Following Mr. Aristide's departure, his supporters burned shops and homes in poorer areas of the capital.

Diplomats in the capital say an international peacekeeping force is expected to restore order. Prime Minister Yvon Neptune said they are needed to stop the violence in Port-au-Prince and elsewhere in the country. "The killing, the burning of police precincts, the burning of state institutions that has to stop. And we need the cooperation of the international community. We need the presence of members of the international security community," he said.

Supreme Court Justice Boniface Alexandre has been sworn in as Haiti's interim president. He is expected to serve until elections can be held. In his first remarks, he called for Haitians to avoid violence.

Rebels holding the northern part of the country have promised to turn in their weapons now that Mr. Aristide has left the country. The U.S. Ambassador to Haiti, James Foley says he expects the rebels to honor their pledge. "I do think they understand as well, and I think we saw a willingness on their part to allow for an orderly change so that there would not be an attack on Port-au-Prince. There was a certain, I think, responsibility that was exercised that needs to be continued," he said.

Mr. Foley says now that Mr. Aristide is gone, a power sharing plan drawn up by the Caribbean Community can be implemented.

The plan calls for establishing a three-party commission to appoint a new prime minister and government of national unity, leading to new elections for a legislature and a new President. Haiti's political opposition had rejected the plan because it did not call for Mr. Aristide to step down immediately. But some opposition leaders said they now support the plan, since Mr. Aristide has left the country.