BANGUI, Central African Republic – A haggard Jean-Bertrand Aristide (search) spent his first day in hastily arranged exile in Africa on Monday after rebels forced him from power as Haiti's first elected president.
Aristide, his wife and a few companions landed just after daylight in the Central African Republic (search), a nation as impoverished and nearly as coup-prone as the one he left.
Aristide told The Associated Press in a telephone interview Monday that he was "forced to leave" Haiti by U.S. military forces. He added that they would "start shooting and killing" if he refused, but it was unclear if he was referring to rebels or U.S. agents.
A White House official responded, "He resigned and left on his own accord."
In an interview with a U.S. television network, Aristide seemed displeased that the top officials in the Central African Republic hadn't seen him but said he was "very delighted in the way they welcome me here."
Earlier, African-American activist Randall Robinson (search) said Aristide told him by telephone that he was being held prisoner at this African country's presidential palace, called the "Renaissance Palace."
But officials here disputed the charge.
"Aristide is not a prisoner in the Central African Republic," Foreign Minister Charles Wenezoui, who greeted the ousted leader upon his arrival at Bangui's airport this morning, told AP.
"He is a free man, and the heavy security measures around the presidential palace are for his own security," Wenezoui said.
Authorities said the United States, France and the West African nation of Gabon negotiated Aristide's asylum here. State radio said it would last only a few days, with South Africa possibly a permanent stop.
In his first public remarks since fleeing Haiti on Sunday, Aristide condemned the armed insurgency that forced him out — yet said nothing about returning.
"In overthrowing me, they cut down the tree of peace," Aristide declared on state radio. "But it will grow again, because the roots are well-planted."
Earlier, government ministers stood by as Aristide descended from a jet in a rumpled suit and a firmly knotted tie. His wife, looking worried, was by his side.
AP exclusively viewed a videotape of Aristide's arrival, which lacked the red carpet and greeting from the host head of state usually afforded dignitaries. No soldiers were visible as Aristide disembarked from the plane.
Officials drove the couple to the palace of the Central African Republic's leader — Gen. Francois Bozize, who came to power in March 2002 by overthrowing this country's elected leader.
Aristide apparently remained in the palace throughout the day. Soldiers were out in heavier than usual numbers around the presidential compound, and turned back an AP reporter who tried to approach.
It was not clear how it was decided that Aristide would come to the Central African Republic. However, Bozize has been courting international support and aid as he tries to restore stability to his country.
"He's here with his wife, and we've granted them asylum for the beginning, and then we'll see what happens," Communications Minister Parfait Mbaye told AP, adding Aristide's ultimate fate could be known "in the days to come."
On the flight from Haiti, Aristide told a Caribbean official on the island of Antigua that he was bound for South Africa, the official said.
In Pretoria, South Africa's capital, Deputy Foreign Minister Aziz Pahad said his country did not "in principle, have any opposition" to taking in Aristide. Pahad said he knew of no formal asylum request.
In his statement on state radio, Aristide thanked Central African Republic authorities, and saluted Africa and its people — "because Africa is the father of us, Haitian men and women."
Although rich in gold, diamond and other resources, the Central African Republic is habitually unable to pay its civil servants, helping spark strikes, unrest and coup attempts. The country has weathered nine coups or coup attempts since independence from France in 1960.