By PAISLEY DODDS and IAN JAMES, Associated Press Writers
Feb 29, 04: PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti – President Jean-Bertrand Aristide resigned and fled the country Sunday, bowing to pressure from a bloody rebellion at home and governments abroad. Gunfire rang out through the capital and black smoke billowed from the city center.
A jet carrying Aristide landed in Antigua for refueling and heads to South Africa, local radio stations report.
Aristide’s prime minister, Yvon Neptune, said at a press conference that the ex-leader resigned to “prevent bloodshed.”
A senior U.S. defense official said Aristide had submitted a formal resignation before leaving Haiti. That would result in a constitutional transfer of power to Supreme Court Chief Justice Boniface Alexandre, pending elections, the official said.
Faced with an armed rebellion and intense pressure from the United States and France, Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide on Sunday left his troubled Caribbean nation, its future uncertain as armed gangs vie for power on the streets.
“Aristide has left,” a senior Haitian security official said. “The administration believes Aristide made the right decision for the Haitian people by resigning,” a senior U.S. official said in Washington.
Aristide, whose role in a popular uprising that ended decades of dictatorship in the 1980s once made him a hero of Haitian democracy, left the impoverished nation 24 days after the start of a bloody uprising by armed rebels determined to unseat him.
The Haitian consul in neighboring Dominican Republic said Aristide was traveling to Morocco on Sunday, but it was not clear whether he was making a stop somewhere on the way.
It was unclear who was in charge in Haiti. A U.S. official in Washington said Aristide’s departure had averted a bloodbath.
“We managed to stave that off. But we are heading into another dangerous period because any vacuum in Haiti could also be dangerous,” he said.
Aristide’s departure came under pressure from the United States, France and other nations for him to resign and end the revolt, which has killed nearly 70 people.
Rumors of Aristide’s departure had spread through the Haitian capital on Saturday, Port-au-Prince, sparked by reports of a late-night meeting at the National Palace involving Aristide, U.S. ambassador James Foley and other officials.
Rebel soldiers in Cap Haitien, the rebel stronghold in the north overrun last weekend, began celebrating in the streets even before Aristide’s departure was confirmed.
Two large fires burned fiercely in Port-au-Prince, one not far from the international airport.
The capital had been convulsed by looting and violence this week as the armed rebels, led by a former police chief and a former death squad leader, advanced on the city.
Aristide’s departure prompted celebrations among his political foes, who did not back the rebels but who accused the president of human rights violations and corruption.
“It’s great for the country. That’s what we’ve been waiting for,” said Charles Baker, a leader of a coalition of opposition civic and political groups. “Now we’re partying. Then we’ll get back to work.”
Aristide, a former parish priest, first took office in 1991 but was ousted in a coup months later. He was restored to power by a U.S. invasion in 1994, and then re-elected in 2000 for a second term.
As late as Thursday, Aristide declared he would not be forced from office, insisting that would even further undermine the country’s flimsy democracy. “We had 32 coup d’etats. It’s enough,” he told CNN.
Aristide, a slight and studious-looking 50-year-old, was a hero of Haiti’s legions of poor when he emerged from delivering sermons denouncing oppression to become the country’s first democratically elected president after years of brutal dictatorships.
Haiti, which gained independent from France in 1804, shares the island of Hispaniola with the Dominican Republic, it is the poorest country in the Americas and most of its people live on less than a dollar a day.
This situation in Haiti is heartbreaking….