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Thousands march to demand Aristide return

More than 5 000 supporters of ousted president Jean-Bertrand Aristide marched in Haiti’s capital on Wednesday to demand his return from exile, less than two weeks before a UN mandate upholding security in the strife-torn nation is set to expire.

Aristide is based here in South Africa as a guest of the government. His arrival in South Africa sparked an uproar from the main opposition Democratic Alliance.

In Haiti, Aristide’s speeches blared on loudspeakers, protesters carried Haitian flags plastered with stickers of the former priest and some held framed photographs of him in one of the largest demonstrations in recent months.

Dozens of UN peacekeepers in light-armored vehicles and jeeps monitored the march. A 7 400-member UN force has been in Haiti since last year and the United Nations will soon determine whether the one-year mandate, which expires on June 1, will be extended.

A few Haitian police officers showed up, creating some tense moments, but no violence was reported. In previous marches, shooting has broken out, killing several, and witnesses blamed police.

The three-hour march zigzagged through the capital, starting in two slums bordering Port-au-Prince, but never came close to the National Palace or any other important government buildings.

The demonstrators chanted ”Aristide left and came back, now he’s coming back again,” referring to a military coup that ousted him in 1991 and his subsequent restoration to power in 1994.

”What happened in 1994 could happen now,” said 37-year-old Printemps Belizaire, who is unemployed. ”We resisted and Aristide came back. We had hope with Aristide, but without him we have no hope. There is nothing for us with this government. We can only look forward to death.”

Aristide was ousted again in a three-week armed rebellion led by former soldiers in February 2004. An interim government headed by Prime Minister Gerard Latortue was installed soon after.

Wednesday’s protest was held on Flag Day. The Haitian flag was adopted in 1803, a year before the country became the world’s first black republic after a slave revolt.

”Today we remember our heroes and Aristide was one of them,” said Rev. Gerard Jean-Juste, a pro-Aristide priest at the demonstration.

Haiti, a former French colony of 8-million people, is the Western Hemisphere’s poorest country. Most people survive on less than a US$1 a day.

Elections, seen as crucial to strengthening democracy, have been scheduled for October and November. Hundreds have been killed in political violence since September, when Aristide supporters stepped up protests to demand his return from exile in South Africa.

Some fear the unrest could undermine elections. So far, about 45 000 out of an estimated 4,4-million eligible voters — or about 3% — have been registered, an Organisation of American States official said Tuesday.

In 1990, Aristide became Haiti’s first democratically-elected leader, but served only seven months of his term before a military coup ousted him, sending him into exile first in Venezuela and then in the United States.

The US government sent 20 000 troops to restore him in 1994, the Haitian military was disbanded and he served out the rest of his term, stepping down after 1995 elections. He won 2000 elections and took office again the following year. – Sapa-AP

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