Haiti reportedly near pact to bring back Aristide


PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti -- Backed by strong diplomatic pressure from Washington, United Nations negotiators are close to announcing a settlement of the Haitian crisis that would return the country's exiled president, diplomats familiar with the talks say.

Under the proposed accord, a consensus government would be announced in a few days, and the central power broker of the country since the coup in September 1991, Lt. Gen. Raoul Cedras, would resign as commander of the army. The settlement calls for the return of the exiled president, the Rev. Jean-Bertrand Aristide, in six months.

U.N. diplomats are negotiating the choice of a new prime minister who would be a compromise figure between the populist president and members of the deeply conservative economic elite.

"The choice of a prime minister is crucial, and they are trying to do it as quickly as possible," said a diplomat who is familiar with the discussions. The possibilities have been winnowed to a handful.

Several diplomats familiar with the talks said they had been advanced by strong support from the Clinton administration for the U.N. initiative and Washington's insistence on Father Aristide's quick return.

On a visit to Haiti last weekend, a special adviser to Mr. Clinton on Haitian affairs, Lawrence Pezzullo, was reported to have bluntly warned the Haitian military and the de facto civilian government that they had to accept quickly an agreement on Father Aristide's return.

Mr. Pezzullo was accompanied by Gen. Jack Sheehan of the Marines, who delivered much the same message in discussions with the Haitian high command.

The insistence on rapid movement was repeated last week by Secretary of State Warren M. Christopher, who said that Washington "would accept no delay" in negotiations for Father Aristide's return.

To help secure broad support for a negotiated solution and ensure social peace after a new government has been set up, diplomats said, a two-day conference on aid to Haiti is scheduled to start on April 6 in Washington.

The Haitian economy, the poorest in the hemisphere, has been shattered by the effects of an economic embargo imposed by the hemisphere shortly after the coup against Father Aristide.

Under the emerging settlement, the United Nations would play a large role in ending a reign of terror by soldiers in the countryside and, later, preventing revenge attacks by Father Aristide's supporters. A U.N. mission that could grow to 500 people would also oversee the reconstruction of an impartial judiciary and the creation of a professional police force.

In recent weeks, 140 human rights observers have been sent to Haiti by the United Nations and by the Organization of American States.

Negotiations on the political future of the country resumed on Monday, when a special U.N. envoy to Haiti, Dante Caputo, arrived here.

The talks had been stalled for months over the refusal of many in the political elite and military to concede anything more than recognition in principle to the deposed president, who they insisted had to remain in exile indefinitely. Father Aristide had insisted that General Cedras be exiled or punished for presiding over the coup.

Although other diplomatic initiatives aimed at restoring democracy have appeared near success, only to fade, people close to the discussions say Washington's repeated hints of sharply increased pressure and Mr. Clinton's personal interest in the crisis have given the renewed effort much greater chances of success.

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