An American invasion of Haiti was barely averted late Sunday night in dramatic fashion as President Clinton announced an 11th-hour agreement with strongman Raoul Cedras to leave power by Oct. 15.
Clinton announced the accord in a televised address and said it came only after 61 planes with Army paratroopers had been airborne to begin an invasion to restore democracy to the Caribbean nation.Thousands of U.S. troops were to enter the country peacefully beginning Monday to guarantee that the terms of the agreement are carried out. "This mission still has its risks," Clinton said.
In an Oval Office address to the nation, Clinton declared: "From the beginning, I have said the Haitian dictators must go. And tonight I can say that they will go."
The diplomatic breakthrough, negotiated in part by former President Jimmy Carter, paves the way for the eventual return to power of Haiti's democratically elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide.
Clinton said Aristide would return "when the dictators depart."
Under the agreement, the dictators agreed to leave power as soon as the Haitian parliament passes an amnesty law to protect the coup leaders and their supporters from retribution. In any event, that would have to happen no later than Oct. 15, under the pact.
The White House had said that Carter was only negotiating the departure of the Haitian leaders, but the agreement contained compromises from the administration's insistence that the leaders leave immediately and unconditionally.
Clinton said Cedras and two other military leaders only agreed to step down when they realized that U.S. warplanes were literallyon the way.
The agreement also requires Haitian army chief Philippe Biamby to give up his authority, officials said. Though not required to leave Haiti, Cedras and Biamby were expected to do so.
Police chief Michel Francois is "no longer a player in this agreement," one official said, indicating his post would simply disappear.
Clinton said that Aristide - ousted in September 1991 - had promised "no vengeance, no violence, no retribution."
"This is a time for peace," Clinton said. "This is a good agreement for the United States and Haiti," he declared.
Aristide spokesman Jean Claude Martineau expressed qualified optimism: "It seems that we are coming out of a long, long dark night. Let's hope that we expect will happen, will happen," he said in a brief telephone interview.
Cedras has reneged on earlier agreements to depart, most recently Oct. 30, 1993.
Talks between Carter, Powell and Nunn and Cedras began on Saturday after Clinton had telegraphed his intention to invade Haiti and overthrow the military leaders if necessary.
Cedras led the coup that ousted Aristide from office in September 1991.
Late Sunday afternoon, Clinton dispatched National Security Advisor Tony Lake and Haiti envoy William Gray to brief Aristide on negotiations with the men who deposed him.
It took evidence that U.S. planes were en route before Cedras would agree to give up power, Clinton said. He said 61 planes with Army 82nd Airborne paratroopers were actually airborne at the time. They were recalled to Fort Bragg, N.C.
Defense Secretary William Perry and Gen. John Shalikashvili were at the White House with Clinton when the accord was reached, working on the details of the peaceful insertion of U.S. troops to maintain order in Haiti.
The Pentagon's invasion plans had called for paratroopers to drop into Haiti as part of the leading edge of the assault.
The troops "will go in the daytime," a senior officer said.
An invasion could have brought American casualties, U.S. military leaders warned, and Clinton was under political pressure to avoid combat.
Clinton began his day in church, bowing his head as a prayer was said for American troops, and the commander in chief who might have to send them in harm's way. The Rev. J. Phillip Wogaman said Clinton is burdened by "awesome and sometimes very lonely responsibilities."
He returned to the White House and spent the rest of the day in the Oval Office with his senior foreign policy advisers, including Secretary of State Warren Christopher, Perry, Shalikashvili and Vice President Al Gore.
Clinton kept in continuous contact with the diplomatic team, which also included retired Gen. Colin Powell and Sen. Sam Nunn, D-Ga.
The trio, dispatched Saturday, met repeatedly with Haitian military rulers, including Cedras who was installed as the nation's military leader after a coup that threw Aristide out of power.
Perry said U.S. forces were ready to invade if the talks had failed or secure peace if the military leaders agree to leave.
As some 20 warships and a force of 20,000 troops awaited the president's final order to move, Perry described a three-phased military maneuver that could be adjusted depending on the outcome of Carter's talks.
"The entry will either be forceable, or it will be semi-permissive," he said. "Whichever way we go in . . . we are going in with a military force capable of defending itself."
The second phase involves establishing a secure situation in Haiti, which the secretary acknowledged could take a few months. The third phase calls for handing the situation over to a United Nations peacekeeping force, he said.