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No permanent asylum yet for Aristide
Updated: 2004-03-04 08:56

In a crumbling palace ringed by barbed wire, ousted Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide passes his days watching CNN, reading newspapers and sleeping after his long flight into exile.

The Central African Republic has put Aristide up temporarily in an apartment in the presidential residence ! a boxy 1960s building that has seen better days, despite a fresh coat of white paint and promising name, the "Renaissance Palace."

"We're a country in difficulty," Foreign Minister Charles Wenezoui told The Associated Press on Wednesday. "We offered the basics. There's no marble, but it's adequate."

The local food probably reminds Aristide of home ! chicken, bananas, spices. And he's been given a television to keep up on what's going on in Haiti as he awaits news of which country will offer him permanent exile.

The priest-turned-president resigned Sunday and arrived here on a flight arranged by the U.S. government. Aristide, Haiti's first freely elected president, had become deeply unpopular, accused of failing to address widespread poverty and of using police and militants to stifle dissent.

Officials in Bangui said they did not know when Aristide would actually leave.

South Africa repeated Wednesday that it's not opposed, in principle, to taking in Aristide, but it still hasn't received any formal asylum request.

Both African nations are believed to be troubled by claims Aristide has made since coming to Bangui, accusing the U.S. military of forcing him to step down ! an allegation denied by Secretary of State Colin Powell and other top U.S. officials.

His hosts worry the allegations could compromise their relations with the United States and have asked him ! "nicely" ! to stop speaking to the media, the foreign minister said.

Still, some officials were clearly annoyed by Aristide's remarks.

Alexandre Kouroupe, a top adviser at the Communications Ministry, cited an African proverb: When a bird lands on a branch, it shouldn't start singing, it should look around for predators.

"I don't care if he stays or not," Kouroupe added. "Personally, I have other problems."

Outside the Communications Ministry, guards in camouflage dozed on rusty cots and kept watch over rocket launchers.

Aristide's temporary host country is nearly as troubled as the one he left. It's prone to unrest; the most recent coup came just under a year ago. Some 15 percent of the population is believed to be infected with AIDS . The country is also so impoverished that civil servants are owed 32 months of pay.

In Bangui, litter and broken bottles fill the streets. Shoeless boys hawk cigarettes, toothbrushes and batteries. Some say Aristide is welcome ! as long as he helps reverse the country's fortunes.

"If he comes with money, that's good," said Gaston Ngabaya, a coffin-maker who sipped palm wine from a tin cup at a bar. "It's God who will have sent him to us."

"If he doesn't come with money ..." he said, trailing off and shrugging.

Aristide hasn't ventured out into the teeming streets, though officials say he is free to come and go. Wenezoui suggested Aristide probably has too much thinking to do.

"He has to take a step back ... He has to ask himself, 'What could I have done so I wouldn't have had to leave?" he said. "That's human. He's a man."

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