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Aristide's return to Haiti "imminent": spokeswoman

PORT-AU-PRINCE (Reuters) - Exiled former Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide will return to his homeland within days, according to a spokeswoman who said on Friday the return is unrelated to Haiti’s upcoming presidential election.

Former Haitian President Jean Bertrand Aristide, exiled in South Africa, attends a news briefing in Johannesburg, January 15, 2010. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko

“He will be back in a few days,” said Maryse Narcisse, a spokeswoman for Aristide’s political party, Fanmi Lavalas. “The return is imminent.”

Aristide has been exiled in South Africa since 2004, shortly after his ouster during an armed rebellion in Haiti. Narcisse would not say exactly when Aristide would arrive in Haiti or why he has decided to return now.

Haiti is scheduled to hold a runoff election on March 20 to decide whether university professor Mirlande Manigat or musician Michel Martelly will become the next president.

Election officials had barred Aristide’s party from running a candidate in the election, tainted by allegations of widespread fraud during the first round of voting in November.

“There is no link between his return and the election,” Narcisse said.

Deeply impoverished Haiti is struggling to recover from a catastrophic earthquake in January 2010 that wrecked much of the Caribbean nation’s capital, Port-au-Prince.

Manigat, whose husband Leslie Manigat was president for a few months in 1988, has said previously she hoped Aristide would not return until after the election because his presence could create “agitation.”

Aristide, a charismatic former Catholic priest, is loved by many of Haiti’s poor and reviled by many of its business leaders and wealthy elite.

Aristide became Haiti’s first freely elected president in 1991 but spent much of his first five-year term in exile after a military coup.

He was elected president again in 2000 but his second term was marred by economic instability and gang and drug-related violence. He was ousted again in a 2004 rebellion led by former soldiers.

Writing by Jane Sutton; editing by Will Dunham