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Shots fired at Mbeki chopper in Haiti

Officials: South African president never in danger

South African President Thabo Mbeki, left, embraces Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide during ceremonies marking Haiti's 200th anniversary on Thursday.
South African President Thabo Mbeki, left, embraces Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide during ceremonies marking Haiti's 200th anniversary on Thursday.

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Thabo Mbeki
South Africa
Jean-Bertrand Aristide

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa (Reuters) -- A South African security team accompanying President Thabo Mbeki on a trip to Haiti was fired upon on Thursday but Mbeki was never in danger, officials said on Friday.

"The president and those in his immediate party were nowhere in the area where the shooting took place, Mbeki's spokesman, Bheki Khumalo, told the state broadcaster amid mounting domestic criticism over Mbeki's visit to the Caribbean island.

South African police spokesman Selby Bokaba said a helicopter belonging to Mbeki's security detail came under fire as it was flying over the port city of Gonaives ahead of celebrations of Haiti's 200th anniversary.

Opponents of Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide had earlier warned they might attack visiting dignitaries.

An anti-Aristide protest in the capital Port-au-Prince was broken up on Thursday by police using tear gas and firing into the air, while demonstrations were also reported in several other Haitian towns.

Bokaba denied local radio reports that the South Africans had returned fire, saying the helicopter had turned back without retaliating, while a separate ground security team was withdrawn from the area.

Mbeki under fire

Mbeki has been criticised at home for travelling to Haiti, where Aristide has been accused by his political opponents of failing to deliver on promises to bring democracy to the impoverished island.

South Africa donated 10 million rand ($1.4 million) to help fund the celebration of Haiti's independence from France in 1804, which in a speech Mbeki called an inspiration for Africa's own struggle against colonialism.

South Africa's opposition Democratic Alliance on Friday called Mbeki's trip an expensive fiasco, noting that along with the cash contribution South Africa had also sent a naval vessel to help safeguard the president.

"Because of his over-emotional response to Haiti's 200th anniversary ... President Mbeki, alone among African or world leaders, insisted on participating in the celebration," the party said.

Mbeki, whose foreign policy has been driven by a strong vision of an African renaissance, has said his trip to Haiti was an important sign of solidarity with the world's first black-led republic and a step towards cementing ties between Africa and communities of the African diaspora.

Commentator Peter Fabricius, writing in the Friday issue of Johannesburg's Star newspaper, said Mbeki had chosen the wrong country to praise as a model for black liberation.

"The model which Africa needs today is not one of heroic revolution and liberation. We have had plenty of those. It is models of what ought to happen after liberation -- the slow, mundane and patient construction of a viable state -- that are rather scarce."

Copyright 2004 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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