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Boat people fleeing Haitian crisis

U.N. Security Council to address situation Thursday

A Coast Guard vessel intercepts the freighter Margot off the Florida coast on Wednesday evening.
A Coast Guard vessel intercepts the freighter Margot off the Florida coast on Wednesday evening.

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Coup d'Etat

(CNN) -- The U.S. Coast Guard intercepted two boats carrying 140 Haitian refugees Wednesday and was eyeing several other boats suspected to be carrying 250 more people.

The incidents took place just hours after President Bush warned Haitians not to try to escape the political turmoil and violence in their country by sailing to the United States.

Bush said any Haitians doing so would be turned back.

The Coast Guard intercepted the Margot, a 200-foot Panamanian-registered freighter, about 10 miles off the Florida coast near Miami about 7 p.m., after receiving a distress call from the vessel's captain three hours earlier saying people were aboard with weapons, Coast Guard officials told a news conference.

Teams from the Coast Guard, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency and FBI that boarded the Margot recovered three shotguns and one handgun, officials said.

The Coast Guard said there were 17 Haitian nationals, four legitimate passengers and seven crew members aboard.

The Coast Guard said the freighter's last port of call was believed to be Gonaives, Haiti's fourth largest city that was the recent scene of rebel activity. It is 70 miles northwest of Port-au-Prince, the capital.

In a separate incident Wednesday, the Coast Guard intercepted a ship off the coast of Haiti and transferred about 125 Haitians to Coast Guard vessels, a Pentagon official said.

In addition, the Coast Guard is monitoring several other small boats off the coast of Haiti that are believed to have about 250 Haitians on board, the official said.

A Coast Guard spokesman refused to discuss the ongoing operations, except to say the agency was conducting both air and sea patrols in the area.

Pentagon officials stressed there was no plan to take Haitian emigrants to the nearby U.S. naval station at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, or any other third location. All will be repatriated to Haiti, officials said.

Increasing calls for Aristide to step down

The U.N. Security Council is scheduled to meet on the Haitian situation Thursday afternoon at the request of Jamaica, current head of the 15-nation Caribbean Community.

On Wednesday, the United Nations called for both sides to accept a U.S.-backed peace plan that outlines a power-sharing arrangement between President Jean-Bertrand Aristide and opposition leaders.

Hours later, a senior U.S. State Department official suggested Aristide's resignation was an increasing possibility.

"We are coming around to the belief that there needs to be a way out of the impasse that allows a government to unfold and take power," the official said. "We are looking at all of the options."

When asked if the United States now believes Aristide should step down, the official said, "It is more a feature of the discussions than it was before."

"It may come to that," the official said, adding that Haiti's opposition groups have not relented on their demand for Aristide to leave power.

The rebels who have been sweeping across the country's north also have demanded Aristide's immediate ouster. The coalition of opposition groups rejected the latest international peace plan because it failed to call for the president's departure.

Aristide has refused to step down until his term ends in 2006.

France blames Aristide for the violence and called Wednesday for the immediate establishment of an international force to restore order, but the statement by Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin did not spell out how and when such a mission might take place.

An arrested man gestures to a police officer in Port-au-Prince.
An arrested man gestures to a police officer in Port-au-Prince.

De Villepin's statement said Aristide must act now because the situation amounts to "a new page in the history of Haiti." Haiti won its independence from France in 1804.

France invited the parties to Paris later this week for talks, but the senior State Department official said, "Things will evolve before the French talks."

Bush said Wednesday the United States was talking with other nations about maintaining a "security presence" in Haiti but provided no details.

Bush was asked by 30 members of the Congressional Black Caucus to do "everything in his power to protect the people and the government of Haiti."

"We conveyed to the president the urgent need for the United States to actively insert itself in the crisis and for the president to personally become engaged in what may become a human catastrophe in our own hemisphere," said a statement from Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Maryland, chairman of the caucus.

Violence in the streets

Opposition spokesman Charles Baker said Wednesday criminal behavior and corruption by Aristide's regime justifies his ouster. Baker said Aristide militants are attacking people in the streets of Port-au-Prince.

He praised international peace efforts but laid out additional demands, including what he called an urgent political solution to a situation that is worsening in the streets.

Armed Aristide supporters have built makeshift barricades on the main road leading into Port-au-Prince as rebel forces threaten the city.

Earlier this week, heavily armed rebels entered Cap Haitien, the country's second-largest city, and seized the international airport, torched the police station, released prisoners and broke into an arms depot. An undetermined number of people were killed, witnesses said.

The rebels are led by former members of the army, which Aristide disbanded 10 years ago.

World Food Program officials said looting has become widespread in the rebel-held north, including a grain warehouse robbed of enough supplies to feed nearly 300,000 people.

There has been widespread looting throughout Haiti.
There has been widespread looting throughout Haiti.

Anticipating violence if political opposition leaders reject the power-sharing proposal -- or if the rebels storm Port-au-Prince under any circumstances -- the International Committee of the Red Cross and Doctors Without Borders have begun to send aid workers to the country.

Aristide has faced criticism since an election in 2000 that observers called fraudulent. Opposition parties accuse his supporters of using violence to intimidate them.

About 41,000 Haitians fled the country after a 1991 coup ousted Aristide. The former Roman Catholic priest was restored to power in 1994 amid the threat of U.S. military intervention.

The small nation shares the island of Hispaniola with the Dominican Republic to the east.

CNN's Lucia Newman and Elise Labott contributed to this report.

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