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Aristide Ends Exile from Haiti

Former Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide (file photo)

Former Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide (file photo)

Former Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide called it a "great day" as he ended his seven-year exile from his homeland, despite warnings from the United States.

Aristide's plane took off Thursday from an airport in the South African city of Johannesburg. He is scheduled to arrive Friday in Haiti. At the airport, Aristide said he and his wife were "delighted" to be returning to Haiti and said Haitians were also "very happy" he was coming back.

The former leader is returning two days before the country votes in a delayed runoff presidential election.

Aristide was driven from office by armed rebels in February 2004 and had been living in South Africa. Earlier Thursday, South African Presidency Minister Collins Chabane said Haitian officials had granted the former Haitian president a passport and Pretoria "cannot hold him hostage."

U.S. National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor says the United States has "deep concerns" about Aristide's return, warning it could destabilize Haiti before Sunday's vote.

Vietor also said U.S. President Barack Obama called South African President Jacob Zuma earlier this week Tuesday to voice that concern.

Aristide expressed a desire to go back to Haiti after former dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier made a surprise return in January.

Aristide will be accompanied by Hollywood actor Danny Glover. The actor, who starred in the "Lethal Weapon" movies and is now chairman of the U.S.-based human rights group TransAfrica Forum, became the latest celebrity to push for Aristide to return to his homeland.

Glover flew to Johannesburg, writing on the TransAfrica Forum website that he wanted to show solidarity with the people of Haiti and help return a leader they twice elected with "overwhelming support."

Aristide and his representatives have said the former leader has no intention of becoming involved in politics and Sunday's runoff election, which pits former first lady Mirlande Manigat against popular entertainer Michel Martelly.

Martelly was initially excluded from the runoff until international observers reviewed the first-round results and recommended he advance to the second round instead of the ruling party candidate, Jude Celestin. The observers cited fraud and irregularities in the first round of balloting, which took place in November.

Celestin was later dropped from the runoff. The person who wins the election will succeed outgoing President Rene Preval.

The United States strongly supports the current electoral process as critical to Haiti's stability, following years of political turmoil and the disastrous January 2010 earthquake.

Some information for this report was provided by AP, AFP and Reuters.