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Reply to "Was Aristide Kidnapped."

It is rather unusual that Aristide appears to have spoken to the press in CAR but apparently did not mention the "kidnapping" at the hands of the Americans.

March 1, 2004
Ousted Aristide Arrives in Africa, but Final Stop Is in Doubt

OHANNESBURG, March 1 "” Newly arrived in the impoverished Central African Republic, Haiti's ex-president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, today assailed the rebels who ousted him from power on Sunday, saying that "in overthrowing me, they have chopped down the tree of peace, but it will grow again."

The government radio in Bangui, the republic's capital, said Mr. Aristide was being accommodated only for a few days, probably until he receives permanent asylum in South Africa.

But South African officials gave mixed signals as to their willingness to take in Mr. Aristide. And domestic critics of President Thabo Mbeki, one of Mr. Aristide's few international supporters, excoriated the government for even considering it.

Mr. Aristide's aircraft landed shortly after dawn in Bangui after a 13-hour overnight trip from Port-au-Prince, Haiti's capital and largest city.

In a brief radio statement after his arrival, Mr. Aristide portrayed himself as a victim of power struggles in his homeland, and predicted the return of popular rule in the tradition of Toussaint Louverture, the father of Haiti's independence movement two centuries ago.

But in Port-au-Prince, news reports said thousands of people clogged the streets to cheer triumphant rebels entering the city.

Mr. Aristide's future was unclear. In Bangui, Agence France-Presse quoted government officials as saying that he had been given temporary refuge as a humanitarian gesture in recognition of Haiti's status as the world's first black-ruled republic. But they did not say how long Mr. Aristide would be permitted to stay, or where he would go next.

It was widely reported that Mr. Aristide had already sought refuge in South Africa, but had been rebuffed for fear of the political consequences.

Today South African officials said Mr. Aristide had made no formal request for asylum in South Africa, and gave no clear signal of whether such a request would be granted were it to be made.

At a midday news conference. South Africa's deputy foreign minister, Aziz Pahad, said that the foreign minister, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, was discussing asylum, and that "in principle, we would have no problem" in granting Mr. Aristide refuge.

But a foreign ministry spokesman, Ronnie Mamoepa, later insisted that no preliminary decision on granting asylum to Mr. Aristide had been made, and that any final decision would turn on discussions among President Mbeki's cabinet, Haiti's neighbors and key Western powers like France and the United States.

In fact, domestic politics may play a key role in South Africa's decision to admit Mr. Aristide.

A nationwide election to Parliament and local government seats is barely 45 days away, and a quick decision to grant refuge to Mr. Aristide could bolster opposition politicians' charges that Mr. Mbeki has a soft spot for internationally shunned dictators.

Mr. Mbeki is already under sustained attack for his friendship with Robert Mugabe, the autocratic Zimbabwean leader who is accused of plunging his nation into privation and repressive rule. Reports last week, relying on Iraqi newspapers' publication of documents recovered from state archives, tied Mr. Mbeki's ruling African National Congress to potentially illicit oil deals with Iraq in 2001.

African National Congress officials have denied wrongdoing, but have yet to rebut the accusations or to deny that they traveled to Baghdad at the time the oil deals were struck.

Today opposition political parties seized on rumors that Mr. Aristide might end up in South Africa to accuse the government of debasing the nation's human rights record.

"Mr. Mbeki's best friends are people like Mugabe and Tariq Aziz and Saddam Hussein," said William Gibson, the chief parliamentary whip for the Democratic Alliance, South Africa's second-ranking party.

"For God's sake "” can't we find some friends who will do some foreign investment in South Africa so we can create jobs for the eight million people who are unemployed?"

Mr. Gibson said that France, the United States or Canada should be willing to give Mr. Aristide refuge "” and that if they were not willing, South Africa had no more compelling reason to grant him asylum.

The Democratic Alliance, a new political party that portrays itself as battling a corrupt and entrenched government, said that Mr. Mbeki's friendships with autocrats were devaluing South Africa's international standing.

Almost alone among global leaders, Mr. Mbeki has been close to Mr. Aristide, donating roughly $1.5 million in South African currency to underwrite Haiti's bicentennial celebration during two months ago.

Mr. Mbeki later attended the festivities in Port-au-Price, accompanied by a security contingent that included a helicopter, a South African warship and a squadron of guards.

The visit turned into an embarrassment when anti-Aristide forces rioted and a gun battle broke out during the celebrations, forcing Mr. Mbeki to leave.

Another visit in rural haiti was canceled when a South African helicopter was fired on during a security sweep in advance of the South African president's arrival.

Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company