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‘Aristide May Remain’ Central African Republic Officials Say

By Michael Wines

The New York Times -- JOHANNESBURG, South Africa

After days of undisguised hints that it would welcome the early departure of the exiled Haitian leader Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the Central African Republic reversed course on Thursday and indicated that Aristide could remain there if he chose.

Whether Aristide chose to remain was not clear. Since he declared on Monday that he had been ousted from Haiti’s presidency by the United States -- a claim American officials have vigorously denied -- Aristide has remained in a villa at the presidential compound in Bangui, the republic’s capital.

Government officials say Aristide is free to move outside the compound if he wishes, but they have told news agencies that he prefers to remain in his villa, reading and sleeping.

Word that Aristide was free to stay in Bangui came Thursday afternoon from the government’s communications minister, Lt. Col. Parfait Mbaye, in an interview with The Associated Press.

“I can’t say definitively if Aristide will stay here or if he’ll go,” Mbaye was quoted as saying, “but if he asks us, we won’t refuse him.”

Aristide’s eventual whereabouts have been a topic of hot speculation in Bangui and elsewhere since he fled Haiti on Sunday, under both American and French pressure, in the face of an advancing rebel army intent on overthrowing him.

News reports have stated that Aristide would prefer to spend his exile in South Africa, and the South African government initially said that it would have no problem accommodating him. South Africa’s president, Thabo Mbeki, a supporter of Aristide’s, was the only global leader to attend the bicentennial celebration in January honoring Haiti’s independence from France.

But with national elections barely five weeks away, Mbeki’s government has come under fierce criticism from opposition parties for its offer to give Aristide refuge. And talks on his resettlement here appear to have stalled at the informal stage.