Aristide's exit

Monday, March 1, 2004 Posted: 4:44 PM EST (2144 GMT)

From the Wolf Blitzer Reports staff in Washington:

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Is Jean-Bertrand Aristide a political prisoner or an exiled president telling a tale?

It depends on who you believe.

"Today I have learned that the President of the Republic of Haiti was kidnapped by U.S. Marines," Aristide's attorney, Ira Kurzban said Monday.

Friends and allies of Aristide are telling whoever will listen that the first democratically elected president of Haiti was spirited out of the country Saturday night, against his will, by a contingent of armed Americans.

The accusation, they say, comes from Aristide himself.

"The president said to me that he had been abducted from his home by about 20 American soldiers in full battle gear with automatic weapons and put on a plane, and across the aisle from him and Mrs. Aristide sat the American soldier who apparently was the commander of the contingent," Randall Robinson, the former President of Trans-Africa told CNN Monday.

That's not all.

No fewer than four prominent people, including two members of Congress, all relay the same claim from Aristide of a sequence of intimidation and evasion.

" ... That he resigned under pressure, that he was taken to a Central African country where he called me from, that he and his wife had no idea where they were going. That he had not negotiated with these countries or with the United States," Rep. Charles Rangel, D-New York, said Aristide told him.

Another consistent claim is that Aristide is being held as a virtual prisoner in the Central African Republic.

Also consistent are the vehement denials from the top levels of the Bush administration.

"He was not kidnapped. We did not force him onto the airplane. He went onto the airplane willingly. And that's the truth," Secretary of State Colin Powell said Monday.

And from White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan: "It's nonsense. And conspiracy theories like that do nothing to help the Haitian people realize the future that they aspire to. We took steps to protect Mr. Aristide, we took steps to protect his family as they departed Haiti. It was Mr. Aristide's decision to resign."

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld even questions the messengers. At a press conference Monday Rumsfeld said, "I don't believe that's true that he's claiming that. I'd be absolutely amazed that he would be saying that."

CNN tried throughout the day Monday to reach Aristide by phone, but was unable to connect with him.