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Last Updated: Wednesday, 18 February, 2004, 04:43 GMT
France ponders Haiti peace force
Rebel on guard as Red Cross van arrives in Gonaives
The wave of unrest began in Gonaives nearly two weeks ago
France says it is ready to consider sending a peacekeeping force to its former colony Haiti, where more than 50 people have died in civil unrest.

It has set up a unit to monitor the crisis, as a revolt by opponents of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide spreads from the north.

Another town - Hinche - came under rebel attack on Monday and President Aristide appealed for foreign help.

But the US said it had "no enthusiasm" for using forces to quell the unrest.

US Secretary of State Colin Powell - who talked to French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin on Tuesday - opposed calls for President Aristide to step down.

"We cannot buy into a proposition that says the elected president must be forced out of office by thugs and those who do not respect law and are bringing terrible violence to the Haitian people," he said.

Haiti's neighbours have been urged to take in those fleeing the unrest but the Dominican Republic has already closed the border.

Correspondents say the US will continue to watch the situation closely, adding that an exodus of boat people headed for the shores of Florida would be especially bad news in this election year.

Mounting pressure

The rebels are now reported to have cut off the north of Haiti and taken control of most roads leading into the main food-producing region, the Artibonite.

The BBC's Ben Brown found the guerrillas had pulled out of the centre of Hinche after an earlier raid against the town's police station as the main symbol of government rule.

He says residents appeared to have welcomed the rebels and while the unrest may not spread to the capital, it has caused problems for the president.

Mr Aristide - a former priest who was restored to power with foreign help in 1994 - is under pressure to quit from opposition politicians and armed rebel groups, who accuse him of having rigged the 2000 elections.

Anti-government protests, which had been frequent since the elections, escalated in late 2003 and turned increasingly violent.

Mr Aristide - who has restated his determination to serve out his term - has declined to give any details about plans to deal with the rebellion, except that he intends to use peaceful means.

'Open violence'

Mr de Villepin, told French radio: "We have the capacity to intervene... many friendly countries are ready to do so".

"A way must be found to do so in liaison with all the different parties in Haiti, of course, so that a process of dialogue can resume.

"The question is how to deploy a peacekeeping force in a situation of open violence," he told France Inter.

President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, 16 Feb 2004
Aristide: First election in 1990 signalled hope for many

Violence has escalated since armed opponents overran the northern city of Gonaives in early February and repulsed government attempts to dislodge them.

Unrest involving various armed groups has gripped a string of towns in the north, and on Monday the central town of Hinche was targeted by armed men who attacked a police station and killed three people - one of them the police chief.

The rebels are now reported to control the town and two major roads leading into the north of the country.

Reports from the town said local police had been forced out and were regrouping to the south.

The BBC's Claire Marshall
"Haiti's rebels are growing in confidence"

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