Haiti ex-leader Jean-Bertrand Aristide back after exile

Mr Aristide arriving at Port au Prince airport Mr Aristide was mobbed on his arrival back in Haiti from South Africa

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Haiti's former leader Jean-Bertrand Aristide has arrived in the capital Port-au-Prince after seven years of exile in South Africa.

The ousted former leader returned just two days before Haiti's crucial presidential run-off vote.

The US is deeply concerned that his return could destabilise the country.

But Mr Aristide, a populist left-winger who was forced to flee in 2004 amid a rebellion, has said he will not seek an active role in politics.

Mr Aristide retains considerable support across the country, says the BBC's Andy Gallacher in Port-au-Prince, adding that he is a potent symbol of democracy for many people there.

Last month thousands took to the streets to urge him to end his exile.

A crowd had gathered at the airport to meet his charter plane. As he emerged Mr Aristide smiled and waved to the crowd, flanked by his wife and two daughters who were all in tears, our correspondent says.

Also on the plane were his lawyer Ira Kurzban, actor and activist, Danny Glover, and other supporters.

'End of coups'

In his first comments after he stepped off the plane, the former president said he hoped today would mark not only the end of his exile, but also of coups and social exclusion in Haiti.

At the scene

When former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide's private jet taxied into the terminal at Port-au-Prince airport, the press and his supporters flooded the tarmac and surrounded the plane.

He emerged after seven years of exile, appearing dignified in a suit and tie in the Haitian national colours. His wife and two daughters had tears in their eyes as they left the plane.

Almost immediately the streets of Port-au-Prince filled with his excited supporters, making their way in their tens of thousands towards his house. They carry his picture, wear his name emblazoned on T-shirts and wave banners welcoming him home. One man told me the "king of kings" had returned.

Mr Aristide claims he has come home to educate the Haitian people but his mere presence is already causing disruption in a country at a delicate juncture.

Mr Aristide's return had been rumoured for weeks. But, our correspondent says, if Mr Aristide makes any comment about the legitimacy of the election, it could have a catastrophic effect on a country that is already at an important juncture.

He was given back his diplomatic passport last month, and his lawyer has said he wanted to return quickly in case the winner of Sunday's election reversed the decision to allow him back.

Another former leader, Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier, also recently returned to the country.

He is now being sued for torture and other crimes against humanity.

US officials said President Barack Obama had called his South African counterpart Jacob Zuma earlier to express concern over Mr Aristide's return.

"The United States, along with others in the international community, has deep concerns that President Aristide's return to Haiti in the closing days of the election could be destabilising," said National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor.

'Pop star' candidate

Former First Lady Mirlande Manigat and the pop star Michel Martelly, known as Sweet Micky, face each other in the final round of voting in the presidential election.

Presidential candidates

Mirlande Manigat (left), Michel Martelly (right)

Mirlande Manigat:

  • Assembly of Progressive National Democrats (RDNP)
  • Wife of former president Leslie Manigat
  • Draws support from middle class

Michel Martelly:

  • Repons Peyizan party
  • Singer and entertainer
  • Popular with younger voters

The campaign has been dogged by controversy.

The governing party's candidate was withdrawn after international monitors found widespread fraud in his favour in November's first round.

The new president will face multiple problems - the country is still struggling to rebuild after last year's devastating earthquake.

And a subsequent outbreak of cholera now appears to be worse than first thought, with health experts warning the infection could spread to 800,000.

The controversy surrounding Mr Duvalier and Mr Aristide, two major figures from Haiti's past, has threatened to overshadow Sunday's vote.

Mr Aristide, a former Catholic priest, became Haiti's first freely elected president in 1991, but was overthrown after seven months.

A US-led military intervention forced a return to constitutional government in 1994 and Mr Aristide resumed his term in office which ended in 1996.

He was re-elected in 2000, but his second term was soured by economic instability, and he fled amid a rebellion.

His party Fanmi Lavalas was barred from standing in the current election, apparently because of technical errors in its application forms.

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