WASHINGTON – With officials alert for a potential refugee crisis, Secretary of State Colin Powell (search) said Tuesday the administration had "no enthusiasm" for using U.S. forces to quell unrest in Haiti (search).
He added that some nations may be willing to send peacekeepers once peace is restored.
The White House said it was up to the Haitian people to decide whether embattled President Jean-Bertrand Aristide (search) should remain in power. But Powell dismissed suggestions from some of Aristide's opponents that he step down.
"We cannot buy into a proposition that says the elected president must be forced out of office by thugs and those who do not respect law and are bringing terrible violence to the Haitian people," Powell said.
With Haiti's crisis in its 11th day, U.S. officials said they saw no sign at this point of a repeat of the refugee crisis of the early 1990s, when the country was under military rule.
Nevertheless, they said there are contingency plans at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay (search), Cuba, for a Haitian exodus. They added that no refugee shelters were being constructed at the base.
Thousands of Haitian refugees were picked up by Coast Guard cutters and sent to Guantanamo during the crisis a dozen years ago. Those refugees were returned to Haiti after the U.S. military forced out Haiti's military junta in September 1994 and reinstated Aristide, who had been deposed in 1991. Aristide served out the remainder of his term and was re-elected in 2000 after five years in which he did not hold office.
The administration is reluctant to intervene militarily this time, partly because there is no obvious successor. In 1994, Aristide had a legitimate claim to take over after the junta was ousted, based on his election in 1990.
Powell said the United States, the Organization of American States and other international organizations are sending officials to Haiti to assess the humanitarian situation. He added that there is "no enthusiasm right now for sending in military or police forces to put down the violence that we are seeing."
But Powell suggested that some nations may be willing to send police forces to the region once a settlement is reached and peace is restored.
Powell talked on Tuesday with French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin, who told reporters on Tuesday that France was weighing the possibility of sending peacekeepers.
But, he added, it would be very difficult to do so while Haiti is in the throes of violence. France has 4,000 military personnel on the Caribbean islands of Martinique and Guadeloupe.
Lt. Cmdr. Jeff Carter, a Coast Guard spokesman in Washington, said there has been a slight increase in U.S. interdictions of Haitian migrants in recent days.
But Lt. Anthony Russell, U.S. Coast Guard spokesman in Miami, said, "There is absolutely nothing indicating an increase in Haitian interdictions." He said the last one occurred on Feb. 1
Carter said the Coast Guard "has not seen nor are we are aware of nor do we anticipate a mass migration."
Nonetheless, a spokeswoman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, Joung-ah Ghedini, said the situation in Haiti "could go from precarious to a full-blown emergency" on short notice.
Agency representatives were meeting in Washington with U.S. officials to discuss ways to cope with an exodus.
Ghedini said the UNHCR has designated an emergency coordinator who would be in charge. The agency also is evaluating its emergency supply situation in the area.
One sign that a refugee crisis may be imminent would be a large-scale construction of boats. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said that while there were no signs of such activity, the administration wants to "make sure that we're prepared should something happen."
An exodus of Haitians to Florida almost certainly would have an impact on the November presidential election. At a hearing last week, Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., made clear his concern about the need to head off another refugee crisis.
The United States has been backing a plan by the 15-nation Caribbean Community to bring about a political solution between Aristide and his opponents.