Aristide Lawyer Gets Ex-leader's Haiti Passport

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PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (AP) - Haiti has issued a diplomatic passport for ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide and his American lawyer said he picked it up Tuesday from government authorities.

Aristide's Miami attorney, Ira Kurzban, did not disclose when Aristide might come back to Haiti. He recently said he asked Haiti to establish a security plan for Aristide in accordance with a law requiring the government to provide security for former presidents.

Kurzban confirmed he was given the ousted leader's diplomatic passport during a brief stopover in Haiti's capital.

"Yes, I have it," he said during a quick phone interview while his evening flight back to Miami was on the tarmac in Port-au-Prince's international airport.

Earlier in the day, Interior Minister Paul-Antoine Bien-Aime told The Associated Press that Aristide recently submitted a valid passport application and it was quickly approved. When asked when Aristide might return, Bien-Aime shrugged his shoulders and said he had no clue.

Aristide, a former priest and Haiti's first democratically elected president, was ousted in a violent rebellion in 2004 and left the country aboard a U.S. plane. He lives in exile in South Africa but remains popular among many back home as a champion of the poor.

Speculation that he might come back to Haiti soared after ex-dictator Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier stepped off an Air France jet in January, making a shocking return from nearly 25 years of exile. In recent days, rumors of Aristide's return have been repeatedly fanned in Haitian media reports and social media postings.

Haitian officials have long said the lack of a valid passport is the main obstacle to Aristide's return. Officials say he would not need a passport to re-enter the country, but might need one to pass through other nations on the way.

Last month, Aristide, in one of the rare statements that he has been allowed to issue during his nearly seven-year exile, said he was ready to return "today, tomorrow, at any time."

Aristide's return has been a principal demand of his Fanmi Lavalas party, which electoral officials have barred from participating in recent elections - including last November's presidential vote.

Following a dispute over the results of the presidential vote, Haiti recently scheduled a delayed runoff for March 20 to pick a successor to President Rene Preval.

Aristide could not participate in the runoff as a candidate, and has said he does not want to. He said he wishes to help his earthquake-ravaged Caribbean homeland as an educator.

Preval's chief of staff announced Monday that he would stay in office an extra three months while his successor was chosen and leave office May 14.

The head of Lavalas' executive council, Maryse Narcisse, welcomed the news that Aristide's passport was issued.

"For us it is important. For the people of Haiti, it is a symbol of the democratic fight. The people want him to return to provide assistance in the field of education," Narcisse said.

She also declined to speculate on when Aristide might return.

"He himself said he is ready and is willing to return today, tomorrow, whenever," Narcisse said. "I can only say that we would like him to be here soon."

Preval, who was prime minister under Aristide, was overwhelmingly elected president in 2006 with strong backing from the Lavalas party. But many of Aristide's supporters now consider Preval and others in his party traitors for failing to return the exiled Aristide to Haiti.

Preval has said for years that Haitian law allows Aristide to return but always stopped short of saying whether he would welcome back his former political mentor and the issuing of the passport was seen as a significant reversal.

Washington has repeatedly warned that any return by Aristide would destabilize Haiti.

Aristide and his supporters accuse the United States of kidnapping him and flying him to Africa amid the 2004 revolt - a charge Washington denies.