PORT-AU-PRINCE The United States fears a possible return home to Haiti by exiled former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide before a deciding presidential election next month would be an "unfortunate distraction" and potentially divisive, the State Department said on Wednesday.
Washington's concern was expressed by State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley after Haiti's government earlier this week issued a diplomatic passport to Aristide, clearing the way for his return from South Africa to his poor Caribbean homeland.
A Miami-based lawyer representing Aristide, who was ousted from Haiti by an armed revolt in 2004, has picked up the passport on his behalf. But it is not clear when Aristide, a leftist, charismatic former Roman Catholic priest who in 1990 became Haiti's first freely elected leader, might return home.
Major western donors like the United States are wary about the expected return of the firebrand populist, who still has a passionate following in Haiti, at a time when the country is preparing to hold a presidential election run-off on March 20.
Crowley told reporters in Washington the United States was unaware of Aristide's travel plans, but added that it would "hate to see any action that introduces divisiveness" in Haiti ahead of the March vote.
"I think we would be concerned that if former President Aristide returns to Haiti before the election, it would prove to be an unfortunate distraction. The people of Haiti should be evaluating the two candidates that will participate in the run-off and I think that should be their focus," he said.
After weeks of fraud allegations and street protests, Haiti's electoral authorities announced on Thursday that the presidential run-off would be contested by former first lady Mirlande Manigat, 70, and popular singer and entertainer Michel "Sweet Mickey" Martelly, 49.
Aristide's Fanmi Lavalas party, the country's biggest, has been barred from taking part in elections, which has led many to question the credibility of the United Nations-backed presidential and legislative vote held on November 28.
Aristide said in January he was ready to return "today, tomorrow, at any time" to Haiti, which is struggling to recover from a crippling 2010 earthquake. But he has said he wants to be involved in education there, not politics.
Outgoing President Rene Preval's government last month agreed to Aristide's request for a passport to return, saying he had the right as a Haitian national to visit his country.
This followed the shock homecoming in January of another exile, former dictator Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier, who now faces charges of corruption and "crimes against humanity" after a 25-year stay in France.
Tensions and fears of violence remained high in Haiti.
In Port-au-Prince on Wednesday, a gunman riding pillion on a motorcycle shot and killed a prominent local journalist, Jean Richard Louis Charles of Radio Kiskeya, witnesses said, and was later shot dead by police. The motive for the killing was not immediately known.
(Reporting by Andy Quinn in Washington and Joseph Guyler Delva and Allyn Gaestel in Port-au-Prince; writing by Pascal Fletcher; editing by Mohammad Zargham)