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US faces mounting international fury over Aristide's 'forced' exit
South Africa added its voice last night to a growing international chorus questioning the circumstances surrounding Jean-Bertrand Aristide's departure from Haiti and demanded an investigation into allegations that the US forcibly removed a democratically elected president from office.
In a thinly veiled attack on the Bush administration, South Africa's Foreign Affairs Minister, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, said that if Mr Aristide had been prised from power against his will, it would have "serious consequences and ramifications for the respect of the rule of law and democracy the world over".
The issue, fuelled by direct accusations by Mr Aristide that he was, in effect, kidnapped and hustled into exile in the Central African Republic under conditions that he likened to imprisonment, has once again thrust a spotlight on the Bush administration's conduct of foreign policy and risks becoming a liability for President Bush as he begins his re-election campaign.
The Bush administration has denied kidnapping or forcing Mr Aristide from office at gunpoint, claiming he sought safe passage out of the country under US escort. But the appearance of at least some degree of coercion, has prompted angry responses from President Bush's domestic critics and some international bodies.
The 15-nation Caribbean Community, Caricom, has refused to contribute troops to the peace-keeping force taking up positions in Haiti. It called for an investigation into Mr Aristide's removal from power to be conducted by the United Nations or other similar international body.
Ms Zuma stood full-square behind the Caricom position. In a statement issued from Pretoria, she said: "South Africa stands ready to support all efforts by Caricom to help bring stability and security to Haiti."
South Africa was one of Mr Aristide's closest allies while he was in power, drawing criticism because of the Haitian government's deteriorating record on human rights, economic development and democracy.
The South African President, Thabo Mbeki, was one of the few world leaders to attend celebrations in Haiti on New Year's Day, to mark the 200th anniversary of its independence. And according to South African news reports, the country recently sent weapons, ammunition and bulletproof vests to help Mr Aristide defend himself against an armed rebellion led by former army commanders and paramilitary death squad leaders from the 1980s and early 1990s. But the shipment did not arrive before Mr Aristide's departure last weekend and its exact whereabouts are unknown.
South Africa has said it would offer Mr Aristide asylum if it was asked. The Central African Republic made a similar offer yesterday, but said it was in no position to pay for his upkeep in the long term.
Meanwhile, the Haitian consul general in New York has taken the position that Mr Aristide is still the country's legitimate president.