Hundreds greet Aristide on return to troubled Haiti

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People wait for handouts of corn flour sacks distributed by World Food Program, inside of a police station in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Thursday, July 15, 2021. Haiti is in the midst of a heightened security situation after the July 7 assassination of President Jovenel Moise. (AP Photo/Fernando Llano)

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (AP) — Former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide returned to Haiti on Friday after a nearly a month in Cuba, thrilling hundreds of supporters who gathered at the airport at a time of tensions over the recent assassination of the country’s leader.

Aristide, a charismatic yet divisive figure in Haiti who was receiving unspecified medical treatment in Cuba, arrives back in a country simmering with tension over the July 7 assassination of President Jovenel Moïse as new details about the investigation emerged.

Colombian Police Chief Gen. Jorge Luis Vargas on Friday accused a former Haitian government official of ordering ex-Colombian soldiers to kill Moïse. He said Joseph Felix Badio told Colombians Duberney Capador and Germán Rivera that “what they have to do is kill the president of Haiti.”

Vargas said Badio gave that order roughly three days before the assassination during a meeting in Haiti with the two Colombians, who had been in the country since May 10.

Capador was killed in a shootout with Haitian police hours after Moïse was slain. Rivera remains detained in Haiti while police are still searching for Badio, who previously worked for Haiti’s Justice Ministry and then the government’s anti-corruption unit until he was fired in May.

More than 20 suspects accused of direct involvement in the slaying have been arrested, the majority of them former Colombian soldiers. At least three other suspects were killed, and police have said they are still looking for at least seven others.

Colombia’s government has said only a small group of Colombian soldiers knew the true nature of the operation and that the others were duped.

Marta Lucía Ramírez, Colombia’s vice president, said Friday that the government is preparing a consular mission who will arrive in Haiti to help the detained suspects and repatriate the bodies of those killed.

Also on Friday, Police Chief Léon Charles said 24 police officers that form part of the president’s security detail have been invited for questioning. He did not say how many of them were on duty the night Moïse was killed. Charles said a fifth high-ranking police official has been placed in isolated detention with four others, although none have been named as suspects.

Interim Prime Minister Claude Joseph said the government will continue to bring those responsible to justice.

“We will continue to pose questions,” he said.

Officials also announced that Moïse’s funeral would be held July 23 in the northern city of Cap-Haitien. They added that his wife, Martine, who was critically injured in the attack and remains hospitalized in Miami, would attend.

Meanwhile, the investigation continues. Tickets for most of the former soldiers, at least, were purchased through a Florida-based company, Worldwide Capital Lending Group, Vargas said Friday.

Officials earlier said they had been bought by another Florida company, CTU Security, which allegedly recruited the men.

Worldwide issued a statement Thursday saying it helped provide a loan to CTU, but said it was meant to help finance infrastructure projects sought by Christian Emmanuel Sanon, a Haitian physician and pastor who has been arrested in the plot.

“At no time during any meeting or conversation with Dr. Sanon or with any of his representatives was there any mention, discussion or suggestion of an assassination plot against President Moïse or the intention to use force to bring about a change of leadership in Haiti,” the company said.

Meanwhile, throngs of Aristide supporters cheered when they saw the former president arrive. They had arrived a couple of hours before the plane landed, holding pictures of the former priest, some saying, “The king is back!”

Aristide was taken home in an ambulance that made its way through the crowd. Some touched the vehicle’s windows before being pushed away by police. Some supporters lingered outside after the ambulance entered Aristide’s home, but the former leader did not come out and speak.

Joel Edouard “Pacha” Vorbe, an executive committee member of Aristide’s Fanmi Lavalas party, told The Associated Press that Aristide “is completely recovered,” although he didn’t have details about his condition. Neither Aristide nor the government have described the health issue.

Aristide’s return adds a potentially volatile element to an already tense situation in a country facing a power vacuum. Aristide has long been one of Haiti’s most polarizing politicians and is still popular with many.

Aristide became a global figure of resistance when, as a slum priest known for fiery oratory, he led a movement that ousted the hated dictator Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier in 1986.

He was elected president in 1990, forced out in a military coup a year later and restored to power by the U.S. military in 1994 to serve out the remainder of his term. As a champion of the poor and advocate of leftist “liberation theology,” he was deeply hated by members of the elite.

Reelected in 2000, he was ousted four years later following student protests and a rebellion led by former supporters, opponents with ties to the elite and the old Duvalierist regime. Aristide spent seven years in exile in South Africa before returning in 2011. He has largely kept a low profile, except when campaigning for his party’s unsuccessful presidential candidate in 2016.

Joseph is currently governing Haiti with the backing of police and military, although he faces growing challenges to his power.

While Haiti’s government has asked for military help, U.S. President Joe Biden said Thursday that sending troops was “not on the agenda.” However, he said U.S. Marines would be deployed to boost security at the U.S. Embassy.

Mathias Pierre, Haiti’s elections minister, said he believes the door is still open for potential U.S. military assistance, noting that the country is in a “fragile situation” and requires a secure environment to hold elections in upcoming months.

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Suárez reported from Bucaramanga, Colombia. AP journalists Fernando Llano and Pierre Richard contributed to this report.

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