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Aristide says he’s ready to die to defend Haiti

President Jean-Bertrand Aristide declared he is ready to die to defend his country against a bloody rebellion, indicating he plans to cling to power. The United States government, citing continued violence, urged Americans to leave Haiti.

Aristide’s defiance and Washington’s warning on Thursday came as the United States and other countries were preparing a political plan to resolve the crisis. US Secretary of State Colin Powell said the plan would be presented to Haitian government and opposition leaders soon.

The Organisation of American States approved a resolution on Thursday expressing ”firm support” for Aristide’s government in its efforts to ”restore public order by constitutional means.” It also called for an immediate end to the violence.

”I am ready to give my life if that is what it takes to defend my country,” Aristide told stony-faced police officers honouring slain comrades at a ceremony in Port-au-Prince, the capital in the south.

”If wars are expensive, peace can be even more expensive,” warned Aristide, who has survived three assassination attempts and a coup d’etat.

Amid the chaos, the United States urged Americans to leave Haiti. More than 20 000 Americans, at least a quarter of them missionaries, are registered with the US Embassy.

Some 70 Peace Corps volunteers were being withdrawn, and other US citizens should leave while commercial flights are still available, the US State Department said.

It said the embassy’s ability to provide emergency services to citizens outside the capital was limited and had ”drastically decreased in recent days due to numerous random roadblocks set up by armed groups”.

On Monday night, six armed men stopped two US Embassy vehicles at a barricade in Port-au-Prince and fired shots that hit one of the vehicles, according to an American who spoke on condition of anonymity. Then one of the Americans fired shots into the air and the gunmen fled. No one was reported injured. The Pentagon said it was sending a small military team to assess the security of the embassy and its staff.

In Washington, Powell said the plan does not contemplate Aristide’s stepping down before his term ends in February 2006, as the political opposition and rebels are demanding. But he said the United States would not object if, through negotiation with opposition leaders, Aristide agreed to leave ahead of schedule.

”I think if they will both accept this plan and start executing on it, we might find a way through this crisis politically,” Powell said in an interview with ABC Radio’s Live in America.

The plan does not address how to end the northern rebellion that has killed dozens of people. Among the dead are about 40 police officers, said Jean-Gerard Dubreuil, undersecretary for public security. Powell said the international community must do what it can to help Aristide in his capacity as elected leader. But many countries, including the United States, have accused Aristide of using police and militant supporters to stifle opposition. The last major government bastion in northern Haiti was Cap-Haitien, where armed supporters of Aristide patrolled the city on Thursday, vowing to fight any rebel attempt to seize control.

Frightened police remained barricaded in their station, saying they were too few and poorly armed to repel any attack.

Aristide supporters there on Thursday forced an AP photographer to delete photographs from his camera and seized the film of a television cameraman. They had been shooting pictures of people lining up for scarce gasoline.

At the OAS meeting in Washington. US Ambassador John Maisto said Haiti’s crisis ”is due in large part to the failure of the government of Haiti to act in a timely manner to address problems that it knew were growing.” He said it hadn’t taken needed steps to fight police corruption, strengthen its judiciary or restore security.

Venezuela offered $1-million for humanitarian aid, Mexico said it also would help and Argentina has dispatched a planeload of aid and also is ready to offer peacekeepers if needed. OAS Secretary-General Cesar Gaviria said he is confident a political solution could come ”not in months, but in weeks” with the involvement of the international community.

Two UN teams flew to northern Haiti on Thursday to assess humanitarian needs.

Meanwhile, 20 Haitian refugees arrived by boat in Jamaica on Thursday, the second group in less than a week. The 16 men, 3 women and a three-year-old boy said they left because of the violence, Jamaican police said.

The US Coast Guard has said it is monitoring the situation but has not detected any increase in Haitian boat people. Aristide has lost support since flawed legislative elections in 2000 that led international donors to freeze millions of dollars in aid.

Even before the rebellion, about half of Haiti’s eight-million people went hungry daily, according to aid groups.

Hungry people in the rebel-held city of Gonaives looted food aid from a rebel storage facility after being turned away from an aid distribution compound. Witnesses said shots were exchanged on Wednesday between armed rebels and armed residents, when the residents thought they were being denied food rations.

Thousands of people marched through Gonaives to show support for the rebels on Thursday, some brandishing machetes and guns. ”We are going to win. We are going to take the (National) Palace,” said Guy Philippe, a rebel leader and former police chief of Cap-Haitien. The uprising that began on February 5 is led by a gang of thugs who say they were armed by Aristide to terrorise his opponents in Gonaives.

They turned on Haiti’s leader after gang leader Amiot Metayer was killed in September, saying he was silenced to stop him spreading damaging information about Aristide. Aristide denies any connection to the gang. The rebels were joined in recent days by a sinister group of ex-soldiers and a death squad leader from the Haitian army that ousted Aristide in 1991. He disbanded the army after he was restored to power in 1994 by a US invasion that also aimed at halting an exodus of tens of thousands of Haitian boat people.

On Thursday, rebels attacked and torched the police station at Ouanaminthe, on Haiti’s northeast border with the Dominican Republic, Radio Vision 2000 reported. It did not say if there were casualties. – Sapa-AP

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