PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti · International mediators trying to halt a bloody rebellion in Haiti hit the same roadblocks Saturday that have deadlocked the country for almost four years, drawing conditional promises of compliance from President Jean-Bertrand Aristide and no clear response from his political opposition.
Further complicating any resolution to the crisis, the mainstream opposition has dissociated itself from the rebels who have rampaged across much of northern and central Haiti, and has little or no ability to influence the course of the armed uprising.
The diplomatic delegation, including U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Roger Noriega and officials from more than a dozen other Western countries, pressed both sides in Haiti's political standoff to sign on to a plan that would leave Aristide as head of state but name a new prime minister and set the country on the road to elections.
After a two-hour meeting at which the intermediaries made clear that Aristide must accept their formula or face his armed and increasingly numerous enemies on his own, the besieged president agreed to accept the plan as a basis for negotiations -- with the proviso he would "not go ahead with any terrorists." Aristide uniformly applies that label to his mainstream opponents here in the capital as well as to the armed gangs and former junta figures now controlling most of the key ports and provincial centers north of Port-au-Prince.
"The president agreed to proceed on the basis of the plan," Bahamian Foreign Minister Fred Mitchell told reporters.
Representatives of political parties and civil society movements demanding Aristide's resignation before they will negotiate on a new government were pressed to drop that condition or lose the international community's support in bringing about an end to the crisis.
The opposition pledged to respond to the delegation's take-it-or-leave-it peace plan by Monday night.
"Although we did not get a `yes,' we did not get a `no,'" Mitchell said of the group's talks with the opposition.
As violence continued, the State Department on Saturday ordered the evacuation of all relatives of U.S. Embassy workers in Haiti, as well as all personnel considered nonessential. Remaining staff members have been ordered by U.S. authorities to stay indoors from 8 p.m. until 6 a.m.
The State Department said it "strongly urges American citizens to depart the country immediately. Americans are reminded of the potential for spontaneous demonstrations and violent confrontations between pro- and anti-government supporters, students and other groups."
Since the rebels first seized the historic port city of Gonaives on Feb. 5, the uprising has cut a bloodstained path across the north. Aristide has been unable to take back the seized towns and cities because Haiti has no army and the police force is demoralized and divided. Cap-Haitien, the last major city in the north still nominally under government control, has withstood the insurrection so far because its street gangs remain loyal to Aristide.
At least 60 people have died since the rebellion began, most of them policemen attacked as symbols of Aristide's authority in provincial cities.
The mediation mission Saturday included officials from the Caribbean Community -- known as Caricom -- as well as the Organization of American States and France. Their plan would leave Aristide to serve out the two years of his term, at least as a figurehead, but would replace Prime Minister Yvon Neptune with someone acceptable to both sides.
Representatives of the mainstream groups opposed to Aristide say they fear that accepting the delegation's plan would serve only to fracture the peaceful elements of the opposition while leaving the militants to wreak havoc.
"The international community wants us to accept the plan as it is, whatever the cost. If we accept this plan without the departure of Aristide, we will disappear as an opposition," said Rosemond Pradel of the opposition Konakon group.
Also unhappy about the international plan was rebel leader Buteur Metayer, who began the armed rebellion.
"What about me? When the international community come into Haiti they [will] take my gun," he told Associated Press Television News in the rebel-held city of Gonaives. "He [Aristide] is going to kill me."
Although not allied, Haiti's rebels and political opponents both insist Aristide leave office.
"The plan attempts to pull his [Aristide's] teeth but doesn't have the means," opposition leader Evans Paul said before meeting with the diplomats. He also complained that the U.S.-backed plan fails to call for foreign peacekeepers to enforce it.
In Florida, U.S. Rep. Mark Foley, R-Fla., said the United Nations would have to play a role in the island nation's long-term future, but not right away.
Meeting on Saturday in a public forum in Palm Beach with John Negroponte, U.S. representative to the United Nations, to discuss Haiti, Foley said: "The U.N. will have to play a very significant role once we bring in stability. Then we might be looking at aid packages and a distribution chain. We'd need that, because we need to move in food and medicine, and the place is in utter chaos right now."
Foley was hesitant to recommend specific roles and a definite timeline for U.N. involvement, citing the ongoing diplomatic talks. But he did suggest that the Haiti that U.N. forces arrived in would no longer be led by Aristide.
"The fundamental fact is, [Aristide] doesn't have a lot of options left," Foley said. "He said he was going to stay and die with his boots on." However other leaders have made similar proclamations before realizing their situation was hopeless.
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Co. newspaper. Staff Writer Kevin Smith contributed to this report, which was supplemented with material from The Associated Press and The Washington Post.
Haiti truce effort on hold
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