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CLINTON OKS ASYLUM HEARINGS FOR HAITIANS

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Under pressure to improve treatment of Haitian refugees trying to reach the United States, President Clinton decided Saturday to grant asylum hearings aboard U.S. ships or in other countries, an administration official said.

White House aides said Clinton remains committed to his policy of repatriating Haitians who are not political refugees as the best way to keep thousands from fleeing their impoverished homeland in unseaworthy boats.But an administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Clinton no longer would force refugees back to Haiti without hearings. Instead, they will be allowed asylum hearings aboard U.S. ships or in other countries. The official said details for third-country hearings had not been worked out.

The decision was worked out in a two-hour meeting among Clinton and his top foreign policy advisers on Saturday, and the president was set to announce it on Sunday.

The shift comes at a time when the Haitian military has stepped up its persecution of political opponents and amid increasing calls from members of Congress and others to protect political refugees from retribution in Haiti.

Under current policy, Haitians who fear political persecution are encouraged to apply for refugee status at processing centers the State Department has established in Haiti.

Exiled Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide on Saturday renewed his characterization of that policy as racist, saying that boat people suffer persecution when they are forcibly returned.