updated 9/27/2005 11:30:35 AM ET 2005-09-27T15:30:35

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice implored Haitian leaders on Tuesday to ensure that national elections set for Nov. 20 put the country back on a democratic track after an extended period of political turmoil.

Rice arrived here after an early morning flight from Washington and flew by helicopter to the presidential palace for separate meetings with Haiti’s interim leadership, led by President Boniface Alexandre and Prime Minister Gerard Latortue.

Rice wants assurances from Haitian leaders that they will go all out to ensure free and fair presidential elections.

Repeated efforts to install stable constitutional rule in Haiti have failed over the years but the United States, with a big assist from U.N. peacekeepers, is eager to see the country turn a corner this time.

Hoping to stem the violence
The Bush administration has provided well over $100 million in assistance since former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide fled the country with U.S. help in February 2004 amid a revolt against his rule. Ten years earlier, President Clinton had sent 20,000 U.S. troops to reinstate Aristide, Haiti’s first democratically elected president.

The State Department did not announce the trip until less than 24 hours before Rice’s early morning departure Tuesday, a sign of uneasiness about the potential for violence during her visit.

When former Secretary of State Colin Powell traveled to Haiti 10 months ago, gunfire erupted outside the presidential palace not long after he arrived there for talks. It was not clear whether the violence was related to his visit.

Politically motivated violence has erupted frequently in Haiti since Aristide’s departure. Haitian authorities hold Aristide’s supporters largely responsible. But police operations in pro-Aristide neighborhoods have often turned deadly. Aristide is living in exile in South Africa.

State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said Monday the administration believes violence is easing.

“I think what we have seen is an environment that is increasingly secure,” he said. “That said, there are still pockets of real difficulty.”

Looking for progress
In addition to leaders of the interim government, Rice planned meetings with representatives of a Brazil-led U.N. peacekeeping force. She conferred on the Haitian issue Monday with Brazilian Foreign Minister Celso Amorim.

“She wants to go down there and see what progress they have made and urge them to make continued progress as they come up on the elections,” McCormack said.

The 15-nation Caribbean Community suspended Haiti’s membership shortly after Aristide fled the island during last year’s revolt. The Community maintains that the post-Aristide government is unconstitutional.

Aristide’s supporters contend that the United States forced him from office. The administration says he left voluntarily.

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