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Visiting Haiti, Canadian leader presses reconciliation

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti -- Canada's prime minister urged rival groups yesterday to disarm and political factions to settle differences so the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere may make use of international aid.

Paul Martin's one-day visit was aimed at encouraging international commitments to rebuild Haiti, which has been mired in political upheaval since the ouster of its elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, on Feb. 29.

Haiti's interim government and UN peacekeepers have been overwhelmed recently, trying to halt violence that has killed at least 84 people, including 26 police officers, since Aristide supporters stepped up a campaign demanding his return from exile.

Martin met with interim President Boniface Alexandre and Prime Minister Gerard Latortue at the National Palace and had lunch with about 100 government officials, business leaders, and a representative of Aristide's Lavalas party.

"The international community has made considerable effort to come to Haiti's aid, but we cannot accomplish these engagements without the existence of national reconciliation between all of you Haitians," Martin said during the luncheon.

Senator Gerard Gilles, who attended the luncheon, said he was the first Lavalas representative to sit with Haiti's prime minister or president since the interim government was formed in March.

"I think the Canadian government can help us have a dialogue, an honest and open dialogue," he said.

Lavalas supporters have accused Canada of colluding with the United States and France to force Aristide to flee. Canada and France sent troops to back US Marines who arrived in Haiti on Feb. 29, the day Aristide left.

The United States refused a request from the Caribbean Community to send troops to bolster Aristide against a bloody three-week uprising that led to his flight.

The 15-member regional economic bloc subsequently cut ties with Haiti's interim government amid assertions from Aristide that US forces kidnapped him, an accusation the Bush administration vehemently denies.

A group of pro-Aristide Haitians among tens of thousands who live in Canada sent a letter to Martin on Saturday denouncing the "foreign-sponsored violent regime change" in Haiti and calling on him not to meet with the "illegal authorities" in the interim government.

Martin also is to meet the 100 Royal Canadian Mounted Police officers that are part of a 5,700-member UN peacekeeping mission.

This year the Caribbean country also suffered two massive floods that killed more than 5,000 people and left an estimated 250,000 homeless in the northwest city of Gonaives.

On Friday, Canada announced it would give $2.5 million for disaster relief to flood victims. Canada also has promised $17 million in humanitarian aid to Haiti and another $151 million over two years for reconstruction and development.

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