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Powell: Aristide Bears Large Part of Blame for Haiti Political Crisis - 2004-03-01

Secretary of State Colin Powell says exiled former Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide bears a large, if not the major, part of the blame for the political crisis that forced him out of office. At a news conference Monday, Mr. Powell provided further details of the weekend negotiations that led to the Haitian leader's departure, which the secretary stressed was voluntary.

The secretary's comments at a news conference with European Union officials reflected U.S. frustration with Mr. Aristide's performance in office, especially in the critical final days, and were the most detailed statements offered by a senior U.S. official about the circumstances of his departure.

Mr. Powell rejected as "absurd" and "unfortunate" reports cited by two Democratic members of Congress, among others, that Mr. Aristide had been kidnapped or removed from Haiti against his will by U.S. troops.

He said the Haitian leader initiated contact about leaving late Saturday with U.S. assistance, and had posed several questions about, among other things, the protection of his personal property and whether he would have a choice about his place of refuge.

Mr. Powell said in a series of phone conversations, Mr. Aristide was given the answers he sought, discussed the matter with his wife, and reported back that he had decided to leave office based on the recommendation of his security people about the "deteriorating situation" in the country.

"He wrote a letter of resignation. I think he might have been in touch with other people. A leased plane was brought in and he departed at 6:15 [AM] or thereabouts on Sunday morning," Mr. Powell said. "He was not kidnapped. We did not force him onto the airplane. He went onto the airplane willingly. And that's the truth. And it would have been better for members of Congress who have heard these stories to ask us about the stories before going public with them, so that we don't make a difficult situation that much more difficult."

Secretary Powell said Mr. Aristide's preferred country of destination, understood to have been South Africa, would not receive him and that negotiations on a refuge continued while the chartered plane was in the air.

He said the United States is "very pleased" that the Central African Republic agreed to accept him on "an interim basis" and that he went there accompanied by, among others, some 15 members of his personal security team.

Mr. Powell said the task now before the international community is to help Haiti build basic political institutions that function and are answerable to the people. He lamented Mr. Aristide's conduct in office following the 1994 U.S. military intervention that put him back into power after his ouster by the military.

"I saw a man who was democratically elected, but he did not democratically govern, or govern well. And he has to bear a large burden, if not the major burden, for what has happened," he said. "And now we are there to give the Haitian people another chance, and we'll be working with Haitians to help Haitians put in place a political system, and will support it to the best of our ability, and I'm pleased that the international community has responded so quickly with a unanimous U.N. resolution."

A senior diplomat here said it had become apparent in recent days that Mr. Aristide had become too much of a polarizing figure to be part of a peaceful resolution of the country's political crisis, hence the suggestions by Mr. Powell and French Foreign Minister Dominque de Villepin, among others, last week that the Haitian leader should reconsider his political future.

He said the Bush administration came to believe that it could not send troops into Haiti while Mr. Aristide remained there without being seen as propping up his repressive rule, and that his position became even less tenable Saturday when his supporters went on a looting rampage in Port-au-Prince.

The official said Secretary of State Powell was on the phone all night Saturday to Sunday on arrangements for Mr. Aristide's departure, including a call to Central African Republic President Francois Bozize.