, PORT-AU-PRINCE, Mar 16 – Exiled ex-president Jean-Bertrand Aristide plans to ignore US pleas and return to Haiti Thursday, three days before the Caribbean nation holds a crucial election, a source told AFP.
The charismatic Aristide, Haiti\’s first democratically elected president, has been exiled in South Africa since being forced from power by an armed rebellion more than seven years ago.
"Aristide is expected this Thursday in Port-au-Prince," a source close to the three-time former leader told AFP on condition of anonymity.
Aristide spokeswoman Maryse Narcisse confirmed he would be back before Sunday and that preparations were under way, adding: "The return of president Aristide has nothing to do with the election."
Aristide\’s US lawyer Ira Kurzban, contacted by AFP, said he "cannot confirm" the reports Aristide plans to return Thursday to Haiti.
The Miami-based lawyer hit out Monday at US interference and suggested the timing of the return was not because he wanted to derail the electoral process but because he feared a new government might block it.
Aristide wants only to "carry on his educational work," said the lawyer. "However, he is genuinely concerned that a change in the Haitian government may result in his remaining in South Africa."
Shortly after former strongman Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier made a surprise return in January, Aristide said he too was "ready" to move back to contribute to the recovery of his homeland, particularly through education.
Like Duvalier, Aristide, 57, insists he will stay out of politics — a statement viewed with suspicion both by political opponents in Haiti and observers abroad.
Aristide\’s Fanmi Lavalas party has been excluded from most recent elections, but diehard supporters have been dusting off their portraits in recent weeks hoping for an unlikely political comeback.
The United States has repeatedly urged Aristide to postpone any move until after Sunday\’s presidential run-off, which pits a popular singer against a former first lady in a tight contest to succeed President Rene Preval.
November\’s first-round election was marred by violence and fraud and the shattered country is still struggling to rebuild after a devastating earthquake 14 months ago that killed some 250,000 people.
Aristide, a former shantytown priest, burst onto the political scene in 1985 to oppose Duvalier\’s authoritarian rule, riding his reputation as a champion of the poor Catholic majority to become Haiti\’s first democratically elected president.
He served as president on three occasions and was ousted from office twice, eventually leaving the country in 2004 — like Duvalier aboard a US Air Force plane and in turn accused of massive corruption and violence.
But he remains a popular figure in certain quarters in Haiti, especially in the capital\’s teeming slums, and in the tent cities that have sprung up since the January 2010 earthquake where many decry the slow pace of progress.
Haiti cleared the way for Aristide\’s return by issuing him a new passport in February and South Africa on Monday said it was powerless to stop him.
"It is not our responsibility to say if Jean-Bertrand Aristide should or should not leave South Africa before the election," deputy South African foreign minister Marius Fransman said.
"The US needs to engage the Haitian government. If his passport has been issued, we cannot decide when he should leave South Africa."