Haitian Leader Visits Dominican Republic

Haiti's newly elected president met with his counterpart in the Dominican Republic amid rising tensions between their countries over immigration and security.

It was Rene Preval's first official trip abroad since last month's elections, a vote seen as crucial to restoring calm in Haiti. The impoverished Caribbean nation has been wracked by gang violence in the two years since Jean-Bertrand Aristide was ousted, despite the presence of thousands of U.N. troops.

Dominican President Leonel Fernandez greeted Preval on Thursday with a handshake and a hug, then the two men left for a state dinner at the National Palace. They were expected to discuss reactivating a commission on bilateral issues.

It was a sharp contrast from Fernandez's last visit to Haiti, where protesters attempted to block his motorcade and at least three people were shot.

"It is a pleasure to meet again with my friend Leonel, this time as president," Preval said.

Haiti and the Dominican Republic share a 243-mile border on the Caribbean island of Hispaniola, but the countries have long had an uneasy coexistence.

The bloody rebellion that ousted Aristide was fomented in part by Haitians plotting across the border. And with Aristide gone, still more Haitians fled to the Dominican Republic, further damaging relations.

As many as 1 million Haitians are living, many illegally, in the neighboring country, where the economy is four times larger.

Earlier Thursday, Preval met with top officials from the Dominican Republic and heard from some 250 Haitian students about the hardship of living abroad. Afterward he went into the crowd, where he was mobbed and hugged by supporters.

"The only way to solve the problems of Haitians abroad would be to improve the economic situation" in Haiti, Preval told the students.

Many Haitian immigrants work for meager wages and complain of harassment, deportation threats and attacks by their uneasy neighbors

Preval's trip came before his inauguration, tentatively set for March 29. He won the Feb. 7 vote after officials came up with a compromise to stave off a run-off election and the potential for more violence in Haiti.

Since Aristide's ouster, gangs have gone on kidnapping sprees and factories have closed for lack of security. Some 7,300 U.N. troops and 1,750 international police are in the country under Brazilian command, helping maintain order.

This is not the first time Preval and Fernandez have shared power on Hispaniola. Both men served in their current positions from 1996 to 2000. Preval was succeeded by Aristide in 2001; Fernandez was replaced by Hipolito Mejia in 2000 before winning back his post in 2004.

When Fernandez visited Haiti in December, protesters angry over the Dominicans' treatment of Haitian migrants started rioting. At least three people were wounded by gunfire during clashes with police in Haiti's capital.

Aristide, a former priest with a following among the poor, won the presidency in a landslide election in 1990. He was deposed in a military coup in 1991, and was restored to power in 1994 by U.S. troops.

He now lives in exile in South Africa.