Former Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide was closer to being able to return home Tuesday after officials said they had issued a passport for the exiled ex-leader.
Aristide's U.S.-based lawyer, Ira Kurzban, said he had picked up the diplomatic passport and would work with the governments of Haiti and South Africa to ensure the former president's "smooth transition back to his country."
Aristide has been in exile in South Africa since several months after leaving Haiti on a U.S. plane in February 2004 amid a popular rebellion. A leftist priest turned firebrand politician, Aristide has often said he wanted to return but that Haitian officials wouldn't let him.
In January, Aristide issued a statement saying he wanted to work in education and was ready to return to Haiti "today, tomorrow, at any time." He said South African winters aggravated eye problems that had required six operations in six years.
Rumors of his possible return to Haiti picked up after former dictator Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier made a surprise return from exile last month.
But the return of the two former leaders comes at an unsteady moment for the country, still reeling from last year's devastating earthquake.
Last week, Haiti's electoral council released final results from the disputed Nov. 28 presidential election. A runoff between former First Lady Mirlande Manigat and singer Michel Martelly is set for March 20.
President Rene Preval had been scheduled to leave office Monday, but he remains in power under an emergency extension approved last year.
Aristide's return could further roil political tensions. He has broad popular support but remains a polarizing figure in Haiti. Despite his promises to stay out of politics, many impoverished youths pin their hopes on his return.
An Aristide spokeswoman, Maryse Narcisse, brushed aside suggestions that his return now would be ill-timed.
"Do you know a better time? I don't know, but he is ready and willing to come back," she said.
Gaestel is a special correspondent.