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Last Updated: Thursday, 4 March, 2004, 18:44 GMT
South Africa backs Aristide probe
US marine in Haiti, in front of graffiti reading Long live Aristide
The US denies the former priest was forced out
South Africa has joined calls for an independent investigation into claims that Haiti's President Jean-Bertrand Aristide was forced out of office.

Accompanied by US soldiers, Mr Aristide left Haiti on Sunday as rebels neared his capital. He is currently in the Central African Republic.

The Caribbean regional body Caricom has also said Mr Aristide's departure should be investigated.

The US has denied Mr Aristide's claim that it forced him on to a plane.

The Central African Republic (CAR) said on Thursday it will offer Mr Aristide permanent asylum if he asks for it.

In Haiti itself, a commission has been formed of government and opposition members as part of an international plan to end the crisis in the country.

The three member commission is to begin selecting a seven member council, which in turn will name a new prime minister and government.

'Serious consequences'

In a statement, South African Foreign Affairs Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma expressed concern at reports Mr Aristide was forced to quit.

Jean-Bertrand Aristide
Aristide faced mounting civil unrest and opposition calls to go
"The suggestion that President Aristide may have been forced out of office, if true, will have serious consequences and ramifications for the respect of the rule of law and democracy the world over.

"... we join in the call for an investigation under the auspices of the United Nations to clarify these circumstances leading to the departure of President Aristide," she said.

The circumstances of Mr Aristide's departure have been shrouded in mystery since he left Haiti on Sunday.

The former president said he was the victim of a coup d'etat, forced to leave by "American agents".

Officials in the CAR now say Mr Aristide only knew of his destination 45 minutes before the plane touched down, and that he and his entourage were guarded by 60 US marines.

US Secretary of State Colin Powell strenuously denied the allegation, saying said Mr Aristide had gone into exile "willingly, and that's the truth".

Close relations

The BBC's regional analyst Martin Plaut says South Africa has said it is willing to consider giving him asylum.

He says President Thabo Mbeki was one of the few heads of state to attend Haiti's bicentennial celebrations earlier this year - and the two men are known to be close.

But, he says, South Africa will only say it has received no formal request for asylum.

Meanwhile, the political fallout from Mr Aristide's sudden departure is continuing.

Caricom has called for an independent inquiry into the claims he was forced from office and it has announced it will not participate in a peacekeeping force in Haiti.

In the Caribbean nation, increasing numbers of US marines have begun patrolling the capital, Port-au-Prince, and aid is beginning to arrive.


WATCH AND LISTEN
The BBC's Ben Brown
"American marines are flooding into Haiti"



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