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S. Africa OKs temporary asylum to Aristide

The South African government has approved temporary asylum for deposed Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide and will foot the bill for his stay, a government statement said on Thursday.
/ Source: Reuters

The South African government has approved temporary asylum for deposed Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide and will foot the bill for his stay, a government statement said on Thursday.

The decision will offer a welcome relief to both the United States and Haiti’s Caribbean neighbors facing a major diplomatic problem over Aristide’s sanctuary since he lost power in March in the face of a rebel uprising and U.S. pressure.

The offer of asylum also underlines the South African government’s implicit view that the elected Aristide was unconstitutionally removed from power in a “regime change” sanctioned by U.S. President George W. Bush.

The government statement repeated South Africa’s call for a United Nations inquiry into the circumstances surrounding Aristide’s fall from power.

Mbeki and his cabinet met on Wednesday to consider an asylum request made by the Caribbean Economic Community (Caricom) through the African Union (AU), cabinet spokesman Joel Netshitenzhe said in the statement.

“The South African government has acceded to this request and the decision will be formally conveyed to the AU, Caricom and Mr Aristide,” it said.

Aristide left Haiti on February 29 after an armed revolt and U.S. pressure to quit. He arrived in Jamaica in early March for what was supposed to be a 10-week stay with relatives.

Mbeki had close ties with Aristide and his government had previously indicated its willingness to offer him sanctuary.

But the decision is unpopular with the opposition, which accuses Aristide of undemocratic practices and which tried to make an election issue of Mbeki’s asylum offer.

Mbeki clearly deferred a decision on the offer until after the April 14 election, which returned him and the ruling African National Congress to power in a landslide.

The matter was brought before the very first cabinet meeting since Mbeki’s re-election.

Aristide has said he was abducted by U.S. forces and flown out of the country in what he called a coup d’etat. Washington dismissed the allegation as nonsense.

He was first flown to the Central African Republic from where he left for Jamaica. His aides said he had turned down an asylum offer by Nigeria and instead indicated his preference to come to South Africa.

There was no immediate indication of when Aristide and his family would arrive, but the statement implied that South Africa expected Aristide to eventually return to Haiti.

“This arrangement will be a temporary one, until the situation in Haiti has stabilized to the extent that it would be possible for him and his family to return,” it added.

A United Nations mission tasked with assuring security and organizing fresh elections is due to take over the chaotic country on June 1.