South Africa will become home for ousted Aristide

BASSETERRE, St. Kitts -- Ousted Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide will take permanent asylum in South Africa but not until it holds general elections next month, Jamaican officials said Thursday. But a spokesman for Aristide said it was too soon to say for sure where he would go. "Mr. Aristide is still in consultation. A final decision has not been made," Huntley Medley said by telephone from Jamaica. "The discussions are continuing with several places and people."

The Jamaican officials said on condition of anonymity that South African President Thabo Mbeki's government believes the delay is necessary because it could be "politically unsettling" before the April 14 election.

South Africa presidential spokesman Bheki Khumalo said there would be no immediate comment. Opposition leaders have said the government should not support Aristide, once hailed as a champion of democracy but now accused of corruption and violence against his opponents.

Mbeki was among few international leaders to attend Haiti's bicentennial independence celebrations this year and is known to get along well with Aristide, who left Haiti last month during a rebellion.

In Haiti, interim Cabinet Minister Robert Ulysse said Aristide's departure would help stabilize Haiti and mend tattered relations with the Caribbean Community.

"We want to put (Aristide) behind us and allow Haiti to move forward," Ulysse told The Associated Press.

In the meantime, Aristide would remain in Jamaica, two high-ranking government officials said.

Jamaican officials said Aristide refused asylum offers from Venezuela and Nigeria. The officials spoke on the sidelines of a two-day summit of Caribbean leaders that opened Thursday.

At the meeting, Caribbean leaders angry about claims of U.S. meddling in Haiti considered rejecting the country's U.S.-backed interim government but also pledged to find ways to help its impoverished people, including possibly sending troops.

Caribbean leaders said they were focusing on how -- if at all -- to recognize a government that praises rebels who forced out Aristide.

They also said they had won agreement from the United States that Haiti's rebels would not participate in any government nor any reconstituted Haitian army.

St. Kitts Foreign Minister Timothy Harris said that agreement came in a foreign ministers' videoconference Wednesday night with U.S. officials including Assistant Secretary of State Roger Noriega.

In amicable talks, he said, the United States agreed that "the rebels ... will play no part in government or in the military because it would be against U.S. policy."

Several Caribbean leaders have criticized interim Prime Minister Gerard Latortue for hailing as "freedom fighters" rebels who include assassins convicted of murdering Aristide supporters.

Rights groups also have expressed shock that Latortue is entertaining rebel demands to reconstitute the army that ousted Aristide in 1991 and murdered, maimed and tortured thousands. Aristide disbanded the army after U.S. troops restored him in 1994.

Jamaican Prime Minister P.J. Patterson warned Haiti's crisis cannot reach a "lasting and permanent solution" unless the 15-nation Caribbean Community is involved. "Nothing can be achieved without our collective support," he told leaders. "We certainly make no claim to military power, but our influence in the hemisphere cannot be underestimated."

Caribbean leaders have refused to join Haiti's U.S.-led peacekeeping force, but on Thursday considered sending troops with a separate humanitarian force to help rebuild Haiti, St. Kitts Prime Minister Denzil Douglas said of the force the United Nations is to deploy within three months.

Aristide arrived in Jamaica on March 15 over protests from the United States and Haiti's new interim government, both of which said his presence on the neighboring island would increase tension as a multinational peacekeeping force sought to stabilize Haiti.

Aristide fled his country Feb. 29 as rebels waging a three-week uprising threatened to attack Port-au-Prince, the capital.

He was flown on a U.S.-chartered jet to the Central African Republic, where the ousted president claimed he was forced from power at gunpoint by the Americans.

Many countries have been reluctant to host Aristide, fearing damage from the diplomatic fallout of his claim.

U.S. officials say they acted at Aristide's request and probably saved his life when they put him on a chartered plane. Aristide says he was kidnapped and never was told where he was being taken.