Warm welcome for Aristide

By Eleanor Momberg

Ousted Haitian president Jean-Bertrand Aristide stepped off a plane on Monday and into President Mbeki's open arms. Speaking at a press conference shortly after his arrival, Aristide said: "I am happy to be in South Africa. We are happy to be welcomed in such a warm way."

Aristide was flown to South Africa from Jamaica in the presidential jet, Inkwazi.

He emerged from the plane accompanied by his wife, Mildred, two young daughters, Foreign Affairs deputy director-general Kingsley Mamabolo, his bodyguards and personal assistant to cheers from a small group of well-wishers who had been bused in for the occasion.

Gesturing and smiling as he saw Mbeki, Aristide and the president embraced and exchanged a few words before he was introduced to several members of the cabinet, diplomats and representatives of the Congressional Black Caucus of the United States. His daughters, Christine, eight, and Michaelle, six, were ushered to a waiting luxury car with their minder.

Aristide's arrival comes less than a month after the cabinet acceded to a request from the Caribbean Community, through the African Union, to accommodate him.

"The South African government takes this opportunity to welcome President Aristide, his family and aides to South Africa," said Deputy Foreign Minister Aziz Pahad.

They would remain in the country until the situation in Haiti had stabilised to the extent that they could return. "This temporary arrangement is made as South Africa's contribution to stabilising the situation in Haiti," said Pahad.

South Africa, he said, had a responsibility to ensuring democracy and peace prevailed in Haiti, and that the island's people were able to choose who should lead them.

South Africa welcomed the United Nations Stabilisation Mission in Haiti, which would take over control from the US-led Multinational Interim Force on Tuesday. The mission was tasked with establishing a secure and stable environment, fostering democratic governance, assisting in organising free and fair elections, strengthening the rule of law and supporting human rights bodies.

The African Union, the Congressional Black Caucus and Jamaica, which had played host to Aristide and his family for the past two months, thanked South Africa for agreeing to accommodate him.

Speaking on behalf of Mozambican President and African Union chairperson Joachim Chissano, Mozambique's Foreign Minister Leonardo Samao said the AU saw its obligation on the continent to contribute to peace and stability wherever necessary. "That is why we gave support to the request by Caricom to host you in South Africa. We are thankful to South Africa for accepting this task on behalf of all of Africa," he said.

Said the representative of the Congressional Black Caucus, Willard Arnold: "Many major African advocacy organisations around the world are pleased that he is now being offered political asylum on behalf of the people of South Africa. This offer is appreciated by the Congressional Black Caucus and other supporters of Haiti who will continue to work towards the stabilisation of Haiti."

Aristide said he was grateful for the opportunity to thank Mbeki, the government and South African people, as well as the African Union, Caricom and the Jamaican government. He also thanked the Central African Republic for hosting him the first two weeks he spent in exile.

Aristide fled Haiti on February 29 after an armed revolt and pressure from the US. He accused the US of forcibly removing him, a charge denied by Washington.

Pointing out that most slaves who partook in the Haitian revolution 200 years ago were from Africa, he said: "Instead of Europe, we are welcomed in Africa, the mother continent, our temporary home until we are back in Haiti."

The Haitian situation, he said, must be normalised. "Peace must be restored, and democratic order. The solidarity shown by South Africa, Caricom and the AU to promote peace and democracy in Haiti crystallises the worldwide African unity that will continue to flow."

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