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Exiled Haiti president 'ready to return'

By Hilary Whiteman, CNN
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Aristide ready to help
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Aristide tells reporters gathered in Johannesburg that he's ready to return to Haiti
  • He was forced from office in 2004 by a violent uprising and has been living in exile in South Africa
  • Said he and his wife were ready to leave Johannesburg as soon as today
  • A massive rescue effort is under way to find and treat survivors of Tuesday's earthquake

Johannesburg, South Africa (CNN) -- Exiled Haitian president Jean-Bertrand Aristide has announced that he is ready to return home to help rebuild his earthquake-shattered country.

The former president has been living in South Africa since fleeing Haiti during a violent uprising in 2004.

Aristide told reporters gathered at a hotel near Johannesburg's international airport that he is ready to return from exile as soon as today.

"To symbolize our readiness we have decided to meet not just anywhere but here in the shadow of the Oliver Tambo International airport," he said.

"As far as we are concerned we are ready to leave today, tomorrow, at any time to join the people of Haiti, to share in their suffering, help rebuild the country moving from misery to poverty with dignity."

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A massive international rescue operation is under way to treat the thousands of survivors trapped and injured by a 7.0 magnitude earthquake that shook the country on Tuesday.

Aristide said he and his wife were planning to fly to Haiti with friends who were ferrying emergency medical supplies to the country.

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It is not clear whether Aristide has sought formal permission from the Haitian government to return. He refused to answer questions from the media.

Analysts say Aristide's arrival back in the country after six years could aggravate an already tense political situation.

"If he goes back to Haiti it will be a massive blow to the fragile political stability at the moment," said Irenea Renuncio-Mateos, Latin American and Caribbean country analyst for IHS Global Insight.

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Aristide is a controversial figure in Haiti. A former priest, his left-wing views appealed to the poorest of the poor, many of whom have called for his return in recent years amid increasing discontent with the current government.

Once coalition partners, the political divide between Aristide and President Rene Preval has widened. Aristide's party Fanmi Lavalas is one of 15 that have been banned from contesting legislative elections to be held in February.

Irenea Renuncio-Mateos said it remains to be seen whether Haitians welcome Aristide's return as their "savior," or whether they turn to the United States and the international community to pull the country from turmoil.

"An important factor is that the U.N.-led mission in Haiti has been encountering problems on the ground in the past because people have been hostile to foreign presence on the ground," she said.

"If Aristide makes it to Haiti, what is going to be the impact? Is it going to cause protests?"

The former leader has a long and tumultuous relationship with Haiti, one of the world's poorest countries. He became its first freely elected president in December 1990 before being ejected from office just one year later in a military coup.

He was returned to power in 1994 after a peace agreement brokered by then-President Bill Clinton, backed by U.S. troops to restore order. After another change of leadership in 1995, Aristide took office again in November 2000 in a vote blighted by an opposition boycott and claims of fraud.

The deep unrest led to looting and violence that eventually forced Aristide into exile in 2004. During his presidency, Aristide lost the support of the United States and angered France with his calls for reparations for huge sums of money paid to the country for its independence.

President Rene Preval came to power for the second time in February 2006. He has the backing of the U.S. government.

During a 30-minute phone call on Friday, President Obama "pledged the full support of the American people for the government and people of Haiti."

President Preval in turn expressed his appreciation for the U.S. response to the earthquake. It is more than likely that the return of a political foe with the power to divide the country will not be similarly received.

CNN's Nkepile Mabuse contributed to this report.

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