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08 March 2004

U.S. State Department Says Progress Being Made in Haiti

Says criminal gangs will have to lay down their arms

By Eric Green
Washington File Staff Writer

Washington -- Although sporadic incidents of violence continue in Haiti's capital city of Port-au-Prince, the situation there is slowly returning to normal, according to U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher.

Briefing reporters March 8, Boucher said rebel forces are "not in any way in control" of the capital. He noted that an assessment of the security situation is under way in cities and towns outside Port-au-Prince.

As Haitian authorities and Haitian national police begin to reassert their authority, Boucher added, criminal gangs in the country "will have no choice ... but to lay down their arms."

Boucher said the multilateral interim force in Haiti, led by the United States, continues to assert control over Port-au-Prince "through its robust patrolling." The State Department spokesman said that "once security is stabilized, the Haitian government, in conjunction with the force and then [a] follow-on United Nations stabilization force, will undertake a systematic disarmament program" in the country.

Boucher said that the violence that occurred March 7 in Port-au-Prince involved a march on the presidential palace by 4,500 demonstrators protesting against Haiti's former president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

The demonstration occurred without major incident until late in the afternoon, when two vehicles operated near the palace by Aristide supporters opened fire on the crowd, Boucher said.

In that incident, seven people were killed and 20 wounded, including a U.S. citizen who was evacuated to the United States, Boucher said. He added that the armed group also fired on a multilateral interim force patrol, which returned fire.

As the Haitian constitution stipulates, Boniface Alexandre, former chief justice of Haiti's Supreme Court, was sworn in as the country's new president March 8. This action shows "progress is being made in Haiti," said Boucher.

In the Central African Republic where he has been in exile since resigning the presidency February 29, Aristide repeated his claim that he had been forced from office by the United States, a charge the Bush administration strongly denies. Aristide said he was Haiti's elected president "and I remain the elected president."

But Boucher said Aristide decided to resign as president in the interest of his country and should not continue stating that he remains Haiti's leader. If Aristide "really wants to serve his country," he should "let his nation get on with the future and not try to stir up the past again," said Boucher.

On the subject of whether Aristide has any role to play in Haiti, Boucher said "that would be something for Haitians down the road" to decide, "as they choose their own government."

Asked about Aristide's recent remarks, a White House spokesman, Trent Duffy, told reporters March 8 that attention should be focused on ensuring that Haiti's people "are involved with grasping democracy and moving forward on an interim government."

Duffy said "any comments that would stir up more division are not helpful as the Haitian people move towards a greater democracy."

(The Washington File is a product of the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: http://usinfo.state.gov)



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