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Haiti Issues New Passport to Ex-Leader Aristide

PORT-AU-PRINCE – The Haitian government said it has issued a new passport to former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide, enabling him to end his exile in South Africa and return to Haiti, a government official said.

Jean-Bertrand Aristide has been living in South Africa since 2004, and in recent months has repeatedly requested to be allowed to return home to the Caribbean nation, but said he had no travel documents as his passport had expired. The Haitian government now says it has issued a new passport to former president Aristide, enabling him to end his exile in South Africa and return to Haiti

"The passport was issued on Monday. All the formalities have been completed," the official said, asking to remain anonymous.

One of Aristide's lawyers, Ira Kurzban, said he had not received the passport.

"If they have (issued a passport for Aristide), they haven't told me," Kurzban told AFP from Miami. Asked if Aristide would be back in Haiti soon, the attorney said: "I think we're getting closer, but we're not there yet."

The news, certain to add to the uncertainty in this quake-hit nation, came as about 200 people demonstrated in the capital Port-au-Prince calling for President Rene Preval to step down.

"Preval, give back the keys to the palace, your mission is at an end," they shouted in front of the presidential palace, still in ruins after the January 2010 earth quake.

Preval had been due to step down from office on Monday, but the presidential elections have been bogged down by accusations of corruption and vote-rigging in favor of his favored successor.

The Haiti election commission ruled on Thursday that popular singer Michel Martelly -- and not the ruling party's Jude Celestin -- would now face off against former first lady Mirlande Manigat in the second round on March 20.

Preval, who passed emergency legislation last year extending his mandate in the event of an electoral delay, has now said he plans to stay in office until the next president and government is installed.

It is not yet clear how Aristide's return -- coming so soon after former dictator Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier ended two decades in exile -- will impact on the political scene.

Aristide has been living in South Africa since 2004, and in recent months has repeatedly requested to be allowed to return home to the Caribbean nation, but said he had no travel documents as his passport had expired.

Haiti's first democratically elected leader who was forced to flee amid a popular revolt after two stints as president, Aristide has said he wants to return to help his countrymen.

A former priest, Aristide has long maintained he was forced to step down under pressure from the United States and France.

"Since my forced arrival in the Mother Continent six and a half years ago, the people of Haiti have never stopped calling for my return to Haiti," he said in a statement sent to AFP last month.

"As far as I am concerned, I am ready. Once again I express my readiness to leave today, tomorrow, at any time."

Haiti has been in turmoil since the January 2010 earthquake devastated the impoverished country, killing 250,000 people and leaving 1.3 million homeless.

Last month, Duvalier's return some two decades after he was overthrown in a popular uprising against his brutal rule also fuelled tensions in a nation which has known years of political upheaval and bloodshed.

Monday marked exactly 25 years to the day since Duvalier departed aboard a US air force plane, bringing to an abrupt end a lavish and notoriously corrupt dictatorship.

Duvalier said in a radio interview aired Monday that he dreams of "national reconciliation" led by all of Haiti's former presidents.

"I envision the possibility that all the former chiefs of state would form a grand council with the goal of promoting national reconciliation and rebuilding Haiti," he said in the interview with Signal FM radio.

In the days after his return, Duvalier was charged with corruption, misappropriation of public funds and criminal association, and several complaints have been filed accusing the former "president for life" of crimes against humanity.

Nevertheless, Duvalier's return was welcomed by Michel Martelly, the singer who is in a runoff election for the presidency against Miralande Manigat, a former first lady.

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