Haiti 'gives ex-President Aristide new passport'

Jean-Bertrand Aristide at a press conference in January 2010 Mr Aristide fled the country in 2004, but says he is ready to return from exile in South Africa

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The Haitian government says it has issued former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide with a passport, opening the way for his possible return.

A government official told the AFP news agency the diplomatic passport had been issued on Monday.

However, one of Mr Aristide's lawyers said he had not received it.

Mr Aristide was ousted seven years ago and has been living in exile in South Africa, but has said he wants to return to Haiti.

The news comes at a critical time for Haiti, with continuing uncertainty over the presidential election, due to go into a second round in March.

Imminent return?

A government official, who asked to remain anonymous, told the Agence France-Presse news agency the passport had been issued on Monday.

"All the formalities have been completed," the official was quoted as saying.

But Ira Kurzban, the lawyer who has been representing Mr Aristide, told AFP he had neither received the passport, nor had the Haitian authorities told him they had issued it.

Haitian officials announced on 31 January they were ready to issue the passport, if Mr Aristide requested it.

Mr Aristide has repeatedly expressed his wish to return to Haiti.

The former Catholic priest was the first democratically elected president of Haiti.

He first came to power in 1990, but was ousted only months later in a coup led by Brigadier-General Raoul Cedras.

He returned to Haiti in 1994 after the military regime relinquished power in the face of an imminent US invasion. He served his term until 1996.

He was re-elected in 2000 but was forced out of power again early in 2004, after several months of increasing political turmoil.

Analysts say he still commands a sizeable group of supporters.

Mr Aristide's party, Fanmi Lavalas, was barred from standing in the current election, allegedly due to technical errors in its application forms

Street protests

Reports of the government issuing him with a passport come at a critical time, with more than 100 people protesting in the capital, Port-au-Prince, on Monday.

Demonstrators in downtown Port-au-Prince on 7 February Protesters demanding that President Rene Preval leave office immediately clashed with police

The protesters demanded that the outgoing President, Rene Preval, step down immediately.

Mr Preval's term was due to end on Monday, but with the second round of the presidential election delayed until the end of March, the president announced he would stay in office for an additional three months.

Police dispersed the demonstrators by firing teargas and shooting into the air.

Last week, election officials ruled that the second and deciding round of Haiti's presidential election would be contended by the former First Lady Mirlande Manigat and popular singer Michel Martelly, edging out the government backed candidate Jude Celestin.

The first round, which international monitors said was rigged in favour of Mr Celestin, triggered wide-spread protests.

The second round was supposed to take place last month, but was postponed because of the dispute between supporters of Mr Celestin, who according to preliminary results came second, and Mr Martelly's supporters, whose candidate came third.

Mr Preval's chief of staff confirmed on Monday that President Preval would stay in office until 14 May 2011, for which he already had parliamentary approval.

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