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Jamaicans: Haiti's Aristide to Live in South Africa

Ousted Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide (search) will take permanent asylum in South Africa but not until it holds general elections next month, Jamaican officials said Thursday.

The officials said on condition of anonymity that South African President Thabo Mbeki's (search) government demanded the delay in Aristide's arrival because it could be "politically unsettling" before the election.

There was no immediate response from South Africa, where opposition leaders have said the government should not support Aristide, once hailed as a champion of democracy but now accused of corruption and violence against his opponents.

Mbeki was among few international leaders to attend Haiti's bicentennial independence celebrations this year and is known to get along well with Aristide.

The 53-member African Union (search) earlier this month criticized "the unconstitutional way" Aristide was forced from power and urged its members to help him. The Africa Union pledged "full support to the country that will agree to grant such asylum."

In the meantime, Aristide would remain in Jamaica, two high-ranking government officials said.

Aristide arrived in Jamaica on March 14 over protests from the United States and Haiti's new interim government, both of which said his presence on the neighboring island would increase tension as a multinational peacekeeping force sought to stabilize Haiti.

Aristide fled his country Feb. 29 as rebels waging a three-week uprising threatened to attack Port-au-Prince, the capital.

Aristide was flown on a U.S.-chartered jet to the Central African Republic (search), where the ousted president claimed he was forced from power at gunpoint by the Americans.

Many countries have been reluctant to host Aristide, fearing damage from the diplomatic fallout of his claim.

U.S. officials say they acted at Aristide's request and probably saved his life when they put him on a chartered plane. Aristide says he was kidnapped and never was told where he was being taken.

Jamaican officials said Aristide refused asylum offers from Venezuela and Nigeria. The officials spoke on the sidelines of a summit of Caribbean leaders that opened Thursday in Jamaica.

At the meeting, Caribbean leaders discussed suspending Haiti from their regional bloc to protest what was seen as the U.S. role in Aristide's departure. He was the country's first freely elected president and his successor was praised by Washington.

Opening the summit, Secretary-General Edwin Carrington (search) regretted Aristide's absence, saying it "will no doubt be the first of much discussion over the next few days."

Wednesday night, Caribbean foreign ministers held a videoconference with U.S. officials, including Assistant Secretary of State Roger Noriega (search), the top American official for diplomatic affairs in the hemisphere.

The United States expressed a willingness to work with the 15-nation Caribbean Community (search) and agreed with its position that "the rebels ... will play no part in government or in the military because it would be against U.S. policy," according to a report from St. Kitts Foreign Minister Timothy Harris.

Several Caribbean leaders, as well as human rights groups, have criticized Haiti's interim Prime Minister Gerard Latortue (search) for hailing the rebels, who include assassins convicted for massacring Aristide supporters, as "freedom fighters."

Rights groups also have expressed shock that Latortue is entertaining rebel demands that he reconstitute the Haitian army that ousted Aristide in 1991 and murdered, maimed and tortured thousands of Haitians.

Last week, Latortue said he was suspending Haiti's participation in the bloc to protest Aristide's arrival in Jamaica at the invitation of Prime Minister P.J. Patterson (search), the community's chairman.

"There will be an extensive discussion on Haiti, but at the end of the day I'm sure we will still be engaged in Haiti. We have a few options as to how to deal with Haiti," St. Vincent Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves (search) told The Associated Press before entering talks.

He is among leaders who have refused to meet Haiti's new leader.

The Caribbean leaders canceled a scheduled meeting late Wednesday with Latortue. St. Kitts Prime Minister Denzil Douglas (search) said leaders had been willing to meet with him if "he had only repudiated the position" toward the community and Jamaica.

Douglas said a meeting now appears unlikely for the near future and that Latortue would not attend the summit.

Caribbean leaders called for an international inquiry, but Carrington said a request would have to come from the U.N. Security Council. U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan (search) sent his Haiti adviser, Reginald Dumas (search), to the summit.

Angry Caribbean leaders have refused to participate in Haiti's U.N. peacekeeping force, noting the Security Council refused their pleas to send troops in time to save Aristide.

Under a U.S.-backed plan, Haiti's new government is to prepare legislative elections, which Latortue hopes to hold in six to eight months.

No country has ever been suspended from the 31-year-old Caribbean Community. Haiti was the last nation to join in 2002.