US Secretary of State Colin Powell rejected calls for a UN probe into the departure of former Haitian president Jean Bertrand Aristide, as the troubled country's interim administration announced elections for next year.
Powell, in Haiti to show support for the US-backed transitional government, insisted that Aristide's resignation and flight into exile on February 29 had prevented a "bloodbath" in the violence-wracked impoverished Caribbean nation.
Meanwhile, Haiti's Prime Minister Gerard Latortue announced that he and Haiti's fractious political rivals had agreed for general elections -- municipal, legislative and presidential -- to be held next year.
"A political agreement has been reached between the political parties and the representatives of civil society for general elections to be held in 2005," he told a news conference with Powell.
The 15-nation Caribbean Community (Caricom) has demanded a UN inquiry into the events leading up to Aristide's departure in the face of a mounting rebellion and international pressure. Caricom has also refused to recognise the interim government.
But Powell said: "I don't think that any purpose would be served by such an inquiry."
He insisted that Aristide took the lead in his resignation and asked US ambassador to Haiti James Foley to help him leave the country.
"He drafted and signed his letter of resignation all by himself and then voluntarily departed with his wife and his own security team," Powell said.
Aristide, who is now in Jamaica, has claimed he was forced to leave by the United States and France, which are leading the 3,600 strong international stabilization force now in Haiti. His lawyers have filed a lawsuit in Paris against US, French and Haitian officials claiming he was kidnapped.
Powell did not address the lawsuit but said Haiti had been on the verge of a "total security collapse" before Aristide left and US and French troops led an international stabilisation force.
"I believe we prevented a bloodbath from taking place," Powell said of the international action.
Latortue, whose government has said it wants Aristide extradited to face legal action, was also bitterly critical of the former leader.
"The country is in a state of total bankruptcy," Latortue said. "Those who were here before left the country with absolutely nothing."
The secretary of state also said the United States would contribute nine million dollars to an Organisation for American States 'democracy mission' in Haiti.
"Today the Haitian people have the chance for a new beginning," Powell said. "I urge the proud people of Haiti to come together in peace, to seize this new chance to put your country firmly on the path to democracy."
Latortue and Powell said that government service would be "open to all Haitians who reject violence and are committed to democracy." The US official added that his country would work hard to reintegrate Haiti into Caricom.
"We call on all armed groups to lay down their weapons and allow the reconstituted authorities to impose the rule of law," Powell said.
At Port-au-Prince airport, Powell met the commanders of the international force in Haiti. About 2,000 of the international troops are American.
He also met the interim government's foreign minister, Yvon Simeon, and, surrounded by intense security, went to an HIV clinic in Port-au-Prince where he announced a boost in US funding for the facility from 2.1 million to 3.6 million dollars in 2004.
Powell last visited Haiti in 1994, when he, former president Jimmy Carter and former US senator Sam Nunn came to convince military leaders to hand power back to Aristide, who was ousted eight months after taking office in 1990.
Copyright © 2002 AFP.