Popular northern opposition leader, Alassane Ouattara, has returned to war-divided Ivory Coast after three years in exile. The former prime minister, who is accused by supporters of the president of backing northern rebels, has already declared his intention to run for president in eventual elections.

It was a small crowd of party leaders and supporters that welcomed the head of the Rally of Republicans, Alassane Ouattara at the airport in Abidjan late Wednesday.

This is not the first time Ouattara has returned to Ivory Coast since fleeing into exile in France three years ago. He came back for the funeral of his mother several weeks ago. But this time, he told reporters shortly after his arrival, he is more than visiting.

"Now I am back," said Alassane Ouattara. "I will be back for quite some time. I would like to participate fully in the political process. I would like to make my contribution to reconciliation."

Ouattara, who is popular among Ivory Coast's majority Muslim northerners, was excluded from presidential elections in 2000 due to questions over his nationality. Those polls brought current President Laurent Gbagbo to power.

In late 2002, rebels seized the northern half of Ivory Coast, and the country has been divided into a rebel-held north and government-controlled south ever since. Supporters of the president accuse Ouattara of backing the failed military coup that ignited the civil war. The former prime minister has always denied involvement.

As part of a U.N and African Union-backed peace process, President Gbagbo last year cleared the way for Ouattara's candidacy. But elections scheduled for October were abandoned due to a lack of progress in implementing a nearly three-year-old peace plan.

"The main thing for us is to prepare the elections, democratic elections in a peaceful environment," he said. "So, I am going to work on that."

A U.N. Security Council resolution extended President Gbagbo's mandate for another year to allow more time to organize elections. But international mediation efforts suffered a major blow last week when militant supporters of the president staged four days of violent protests in the south.

The Rally of Republicans asked its militants not to come to the airport for security reasons, one party official said. Unemployed northerner, Wilfried Gomon, was among a handful of supporters waiting outside, hoping to get a glimpse of Ouattara.

"It is an encouraging sign," he says. "Given all we are going through right now, if they can just sit down and discuss things, he says, I think that is the wish of all Ivorians."