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Thousands march in support of Aristide

More than 5 000 supporters of ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide marched through Haiti’s capital on Friday, calling for his return and accusing the United States government of forcing his departure.

The demonstration began in the hilltop slum of Bel Air and wound its way through neighbourhoods near the presidential palace.

Protesters, many wearing T-shirts and caps with photos of Aristide, chanted ”George Bush kidnapped Aristide,” and ”Mobilise for Aristide to return!”

Others played drums and cymbals, and held framed photos of Aristide who left Haiti on February 29 as rebels threatened to take the capital.

Aristide, who has been granted temporary asylum in South Africa, has accused US agents of kidnapping him — a charge US officials vehemently deny.

More than two dozen US marines patrolled the march route on Friday, and there were no reports of violence. Haitian riot police also were on hand.

Protesters said new presidential elections would not be legitimate if Aristide wasn’t a candidate. Aristide has said he wants to return one day but has said the conditions must be right.

”We can never go to elections without Aristide being returned,” said Johnny Daris (21) a mechanic among the marchers.

US-backed interim Prime Minister Gerard Latortue has said legislative elections are to be held in September 2005 and presidential elections in November 2005.

”We cannot go to elections with those people” in the interim government, said Henri Bonnet (40) an unemployed man in the march.

The Americas’ poorest country has been in crisis since 2000, when Aristide’s Lavalas Family party won legislative elections that observers said were flawed. The vote ultimately soured relations with the international community and led to the freezing of hundreds of millions of dollars in aid.

In the past year, Haiti became embroiled in violent clashes between Aristide’s supporters and opponents.

Following Aristide’s departure, the United States sent troops under a UN mandate and installed Supreme Court Chief Justice Boniface Alexandre as president.

Aristide was first flown on a US-chartered jet to the Central African Republic. He later moved temporarily to Jamaica before leaving for South Africa on May 31.

At a meeting in Ecuador last week, the Organisation of American States opened the way for an investigation into Aristide’s ouster.

The human rights group Amnesty International, meanwhile, released a report on Friday calling for action to disarm politically allied factions and criticising the work of a US-led multinational force, saying it didn’t do enough to help police make the country secure.

US military officials disagree, saying the force has returned stability and security to pre-crisis levels and carried out more than 3 300 patrols, detaining those wanted for crimes and confiscating illegal weapons while the police force has increased in size. The troops also flew aid to remote areas following floods last month and carried out humanitarian projects.

As the US-led troops’ mission concludes, a UN force is taking over this month. It is to be led by Brazilian troops, and is expected to include 6 700 peacekeepers and more than 1 000 international police. ‒ Sapa-AP

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