Haiti opens door for return of ex-president Aristide

Haiti's government is ready to issue a diplomatic passport to ousted former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, opening the way for his return home from exile in South Africa, a senior official said on Monday.

Aristide's Miami-based lawyer formally requested the passport in a letter to Haitian authorities, asking them to guarantee security for the former leader's return to his poor, earthquake-battered Caribbean homeland.

No timing was specified, but the United States and other western donors are wary that the reappearance of the leftist former Roman Catholic priest on his home soil could disrupt an already edgy political climate after chaotic presidential and legislative elections held in November.

"The Council of Ministers, under the leadership of President Rene Preval, decided that a diplomatic passport be issued to President Aristide, if he asks for it," Fritz Longchamp, general secretary for the presidency, told Reuters.

Aristide, who became Haiti's first freely elected president in 1990 before being driven out by an armed revolt, said this month he was ready to return to his homeland "today, tomorrow, at any time."

His willingness to go home follows the controversial return to Haiti on January 16 of former dictator Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier. The reappearance of Duvalier, 59, was judged unhelpful by many foreign governments. He now faces charges in Haiti of corruption, theft and crimes against humanity.

The return of Aristide, who is still popular and could mobilize fanatical support in the streets, would complicate the charged atmosphere as Haiti awaits first-round results from the November 28 elections, expected to be released on Wednesday.

Aristide's Fanmi Lavalas party, the biggest in the country, was barred from the poll by Haiti's electoral authorities.

The Western Hemisphere's poorest state is in the grip of a cholera epidemic and struggling to recover from a devastating 2010 earthquake that killed more than 300,000 people.

International Pressure

Haiti's government and electoral authorities are under pressure from the United States, the United Nations and other donors to enact Organization of American States recommendations that revise contested preliminary election results.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton flew to Haiti on Sunday to back the OAS election proposal.

In his letter to Haiti's Minister of Foreign Affairs Marie-Michele Rey and Minister of the Interior Paul Antoine Bien-Aime, Aristide's lawyer, Ira Kurzban, asked that the diplomatic passport be delivered to South Africa's government.

"Consistent with Haitian law, I kindly request that his diplomatic passport be issued immediately and that plans for his return commence immediately," said the letter, a copy of which was sent to Reuters by a source close to Aristide.

The lawyer also asked for the Haitian authorities to draw up a security plan for Aristide's return.

OAS experts, citing widespread irregularities in voting tallies from the first-round election, have recommended that presidential candidate and popular musician Michel Martelly be included in a second-round runoff vote in place of the government-backed candidate, Jude Celestin.

The preliminary results announced in early December triggered street riots by Martelly's supporters, because Celestin was placed narrowly ahead of their candidate.

Opposition matriarch Mirlande Manigat is already confirmed through to the runoff, to be held on March 20.

Despite the OAS report and international pressure, Celestin, a government technocrat and protege of Preval, has not formally withdrawn from the race despite urging from his own INITE coalition to do so.

[Source: By Joseph Guyler Delva, Reuters, Port-Au-Prince, 31Jan11]

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