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Gary Younge
Cajoled or abducted? Mystery of Aristide's final hours

"Mr President, with all due respect, the plane is 20 minutes away, I really need the letter," Mr Moreno said, meaning Mr Aristide's letter of resignation. Mr Aristide then pulled an envelope from his wife's purse, as she sat stonily by his side.

Once its contents were confirmed, Mr Moreno apologised to Mr Aristide and his wife. "I said I was very sorry to see things end this way," he said.

Mr Aristide replied in English: "Well, that's life."

About an hour later he was gone, zig-zagging the skies in search of asylum and finally landing in the Central African Republic.

This, at least, is the United States' official version of Mr Aristide's last hours as told by Mr Moreno, a career diplomat who has been in Haiti for the past two and a half years.

Mr Aristide's account could not be more different. He says he was abducted, forced by the US to leave his own country at gunpoint.

A large number of US agents arrived at his official residence, he says. "They came at night ... there were too many. I couldn't count them. [They] were telling me that if I don't leave they would start shooting and be killing in a matter of time."

Asked who had kidnapped him, he replied: "Forces, Haitian forces. They were Americans and Haitians together acting to surround the airport, my house, the palace. I was told that I better leave.

"American agents talked to me. Haitian agents talked to me. And I finally realised it was true, we were going to have bloodshed. And when I asked how many people may get killed, they said thousands may get killed. So [they were] using that kind of force to lead a coup d'etat."

What truly happened during the former Haitian president's final hours in office has become almost as controversial as what he did in his decade in power.

The political vacuum left by his departure remains unfilled. The rebel leaders, who have merged with the police, claim to have secured military control. Opposition leaders have refused to negotiate with Mr Aristide's prime minister, Yvon Neptune, about forming a new government.

After the rebel leader, Guy Philippe, said he intended to have Mr Neptune arrested on corruption charges, a rebel group converged on the prime minister's official residence, from which he had to be rescued by US marines.

The deposed dictator Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier has announced that he intends to return as soon as possible, although he added that seeking the presidency was "not on my agenda".

Louis-Jodel Chamblain, a convicted killer who led army death squads and is accused of ordering hundreds of executions, has demanded a voice in the new political settlement. "What's mine is mine," he said.

In the Central African Republic, where Mr Aristide is staying at the official residence of President François Bozize, the government has asked him to refrain from claiming that he was kidnapped for fear of an international incident.

The official US position is that Mr Aristide's claim is absurd.

Mr Moreno says he arrived at Mr Aristide's home accompanied only by an embassy political officer and the US security guards, sent by the US ambassador, James Foley, to collect a letter.

When he said "I understand you have a letter for me", Mr Aristide replied: "I give you my word, I will give you the letter. You know what my word means to me. You know I always keep my word."

He told Mr Aristide he could hand over the letter when they got to the airport, but that they had better leave quickly, because "the situation was getting bad".

"He was not kidnapped," the US secretary of state, Colin Powell, said. "We did not force him on to the airplane. He went on to the airplane willingly, and that's the truth."

While it is unlikely that Mr Aristide was led to the airport in handcuffs, it is equally disingenuous to suggest that his departure was in any way voluntary. In either case it is significant that he resigned to the US rather than to the chief supreme court justice, his constitutional successor.

The fact that the day before he fled he vowed to remain and fight, and that he left without any clear destination in mind, suggests that he left in a hurry.

A US official said Mr Aristide had asked whether some of the 50 marines President Bush had sent a week earlier to protect the US embassy might go to the presidential palace if the rebels drew close. The answer was no. With no army to protect him, he had few options.

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