WASHINGTON--The State Department is asking Caribbean, South American and Central American countries to provide shelter for more than 500 Haitian refugees, officials said yesterday.
The refugees have been detained aboard U.S. vessels since trying to flee to south Florida.
After several days of inquiries, only the Central American nation of Belize has agreed to accept some Haitians, the officials said.
The Haitians are aboard four Coast Guard vessels, two of which are at anchor off the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The remaining two vessels are on the lookout nearby for additional refugees.
The U.S. officials, who spoke only on the condition they not be identified, said the administration wants to disperse the Haitians to countries where they would be cared for by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
During the seven-month tenure of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, Haitians who were captured by the U.S. Coast Guard while trying to flee to south Florida were routinely returned to Haiti.
But the administration backed off that policy after Aristide's September 30 ouster at the hands of a military coup. The administration abides by the standard international refugee policy of returning those who flee for economic reasons but not returning those trying to escape political repression.
Richard Boucher, the State Department deputy spokesperson, said about half the 520 Haitians in Coast Guard custody have been interviewed by U.S. immigration officials.
Reports from Port-au-Prince indicate that pro-democracy activists who are seeking Aristide's return to power can be subject to stiff reprisals from Haitian authorities.
On Tuesday, witnesses said police with automatic weapons stormed a university auditorium in the capital and arrested about 80 students protesting Aristide's ouster.
The witnesses said the students were herded into a corner of the auditorium and at least four were beaten.
The incident occurred as a seven-member Organization of American States delegation continued to press Haitian leaders for a restoration of democratic government.
The delegation arrived in Haiti on Sunday and planned to return to Washington late last night. They were expected to report to the OAS permanent council yesterday.
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