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Haiti Council Names Interim Prime Minister

Haiti Council Names Interim Prime Minister

On behalf of Jed Kurzban

Wednesday, March 10, 2004 – Associated Press

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti – Haiti’s advisory council named an interim prime minister to pave the way for elections, while U.S. Marines said they would start helping disarm the general population in a potentially volatile move after weeks of bloodshed.

Militants demanding ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s return stoned cars and set barricades ablaze Tuesday, blocking a main road in the capital and threatening renewed turmoil.

In France, lawyers for Aristide said Wednesday that a legal team is preparing cases accusing authorities in the United States and France of abducting him and forcing him into exile.

Aristide believes he is still president of Haiti and will use the courts in his fight to return home, U.S. lawyer Brian Concannon said in Paris after meeting Aristide in Central African Republic. U.S. officials strongly deny claims that Aristide was abducted.

The new prime minister, Gerard Latortue, a former U.N. official and foreign minister, faces the difficult task of helping to restore peace in this troubled Caribbean nation following a month long insurgency that helped drive Aristide from power on Feb. 29. Rebels had seized control of half the country, sparking a frenzy of looting and violence. More than 400 people have died in the rebellion and reprisal killings.

U.S. Col. Charles Gurganus told reporters in Port-au-Prince that a joint disarmament program with Haitian police would begin Wednesday. He called on Haitians to tell peacekeepers who has weapons and to turn in any arms, but he gave few details of how the program will work.

“The disarmament will be both active and reactive, but I’m not going to say any more about that,” he said. Rebel groups and Aristide loyalists have threatened violence if weapons aren’t taken away from their enemies.

Since the U.S. and French-led peacekeepers arrived a week ago, there has been confusion over who is in charge of disarming groups. On Monday, Gurganus said disarming rebels was not part of the peacekeepers’ mission, but he indicated that could change if police asked for help.

After five days of private meetings, the seven-member Council of Sages settled on Latortue, who also served as an international business consultant in Miami.

Latortue and interim President Boniface Alexandre will work toward organizing elections and building a new government for Haiti. Under Aristide, the prime minister’s position was largely ceremonial. But Latortue’s position will be that of a powerbroker and has the potential of carrying enough weight to smooth political divisions.

Council member Dr. Ariel Henry said Latortue was chosen because the council believed he was “an independent guy, a democrat.” Councilor Anne-Marie Issa described him as someone “to pull everybody together.”

Latortue, who served as foreign minister in 1988, was in Miami but accepted the position in a telephone call, council members said. He was expected to fly to Haiti as soon as Wednesday to replace Yvon Neptune. Latortue couldn’t be reached for comment Tuesday.

Neptune stayed in his post even after Aristide fled the country and Aristide opponents have demanded that he be replaced.

Also Tuesday, CIA Director George J. Tenet warned that in Haiti, “a humanitarian disaster or mass migration remains possible.”

“A cycle of clashes and revenge killings could easily be set off, given the large number of angry, well-armed people on both sides,” he told the Senate Armed Services Committee in Washington. “Improving security will require the difficult task of disarming armed groups and augmenting and retraining a national security force.”

Aristide, meanwhile, has insisted from exile in Africa that he is still president of Haiti, saying he was removed from office by the U.S. government.

Ira Kurzban, a Miami-based lawyer for Aristide, told The Associated Press that he has called on Secretary of State Colin Powell to investigate.

In an interview Monday with National Public Radio, Powell again denied that Washington forced out Aristide, saying U.S. troops saved his life.

Aristide “contacted our ambassador,” Powell said, “and our ambassador made appropriate arrangements so that he could leave safely, which many people said we should make sure would happen – that nothing would happen to him. And he left of his own free will.”

U.S. forces in Haiti, about 1,600 strong, have a limited set of circumstances during which they can use deadly force. They cannot stop looting, even of American companies. Nor can they stop Haitian-on-Haitian violence, officials said.

Their mission is to protect key sites to pave the way for an eventual U.N. peacekeeping force, but they have found themselves getting dragged into policing the troubled nation.

Late Monday, Marines shot and killed the driver of a car speeding toward a checkpoint. A passenger was wounded. The U.S. Defense Department defended the Marines, saying they acted within their orders to fire when they felt threatened.

Aristide was a popular slum priest, elected on promises to champion the poor who make up the vast majority of Haiti’s 8 million people. But he has lost support, with Haitians saying he failed to improve their lives, condoned corruption and used police and armed supporters to attack political opponents.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said Tuesday that he hopes the international community will have the patience and stamina necessary to commit to Haiti “for the long haul.”

“It’s going to take time, it’s going to take lots of hard work,” he told the Canadian Broadcasting Corp.

The United Nations also appealed for $35 million to fund emergency humanitarian relief operations to help stabilize Haiti.

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