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PORT-AU-PRINCE (Reuters) - Former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide made a triumphant homecoming to Haiti on Friday after seven years of exile, returning despite U.S. objections two days before a crucial presidential vote.
Thousands of enthusiastic followers turned out to greet the former leader, who is still widely revered in impoverished Haiti as a champion of the poor, although viewed by the United States as divisive figure who could disrupt Sunday's election.
Supporters whooped and cheered at Port-au-Prince airport as a smiling Aristide, accompanied by his family and U.S. actor and black rights activist Danny Glover, emerged from the charter plane that brought him home from South Africa.
"If you could lean against my heart you could hear how fast it is beating, how it is singing a melody to Haiti," Aristide, wearing a blue suit, told reporters at the airport.
He said he had come back to make "a small contribution" to his country, which is struggling to recover from a devastating 2010 earthquake that killed more than 300,000 people and set back development in one of the world's poorest states.
Screaming supporters of "Titide", as he is affectionately known, waved Haitian flags and welcome banners and mobbed the black SUV that took him from the airport -- with a police officer sitting on the front of the car.
At his spacious home in the capital's Tabarre district, which had been refurbished for his arrival and draped with national flags, followers climbed walls and trees to pack the yard to greet him when he arrived. One woman rolled on the ground in delight, screaming "Long Live Aristide."
Aristide, 57, a charismatic former Roman Catholic priest, was ousted from power in 2004 through an armed rebellion.
He became Haiti's first freely elected president in 1991, but was overthrown by the military after seven months. His fiery brand of left-wing populism won him enemies among business elites and the army, which he eventually abolished.
Re-elected in 2000, his second term saw economic instability and violence, with critics accusing him of intolerance and persecution of opponents.
Aristide, who had accused Washington of helping to engineer his 2004 exile, ignored a direct plea from the United States to delay his return to the Caribbean nation until after Sunday.
Washington and other western donors, who have pledged billions of dollars to help rebuild Haiti after the earthquake, had expressed fears that the homecoming of the former president could be destabilizing for the run-off election.
In the initial second-round run-off in the history of Haiti's presidential elections, voters will choose between popular musician Michel "Sweet Mickey" Martelly and former first lady Mirlande Manigat.
Donors hope the election will appoint a stable leadership to administer post-quake reconstruction funds.
In his first comments, Aristide mostly avoided overtly political issues but stressed the importance of including all Haitians in national life. He did mention the "exclusion" of his Fanmi Lavalas party, Haiti's biggest, which says it was barred from having its own candidate for the elections.
"We condemn all kinds of violence so that the education of young people can bring peace in the head and the belly," Aristide said, recalling one of his old campaigning slogans.
"This is a great day for the Haitian people," said Ansyto Felix, an activist for the Fanmi Lavalas party,
U.N. peacekeepers, who are providing security for the polls, reinforced Haitian police in the streets. But the top U.N. official in the country, Edmond Mulet, told Reuters he was relieved Aristide had avoided talking about politics and that there had been no violence on his arrival.
"So far, so good," Mulet said. "Right now we are focused on the elections on Sunday".
In his comments, Aristide remembered the victims of the 2010 earthquake and hundreds of thousands of homeless survivors still living in tent camps across the wrecked capital. "Your suffering is running through my blood like a river," he said.
Before Aristide's arrival, U.S. President Barack Obama had called his South African counterpart, Jacob Zuma, to stress the importance of Aristide not returning before the poll. South Africa said it could not stop Aristide from going back home.
Despite a generally calm second-round campaign, there are fears that although Aristide is not a candidate his presence and large numbers of his followers in the streets could stir up a volatile electoral atmosphere.
"A lot can still go wrong ... Whoever wins, Martelly or Manigat, will have to face a monumental challenge, and the Aristide wild card thrown into the mix will not make things any easier," said Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue think tank in Washington.
Aides to Aristide say he intends to stay out of politics and use his expertise in education to assist Haiti's recovery.
Both presidential candidates have said Aristide has the right to return to his country, although they would have preferred him to come back after Sunday's vote.
American movie star Glover, who had flown with Aristide from South Africa, called it a "great day for Haiti."
"He is the country's first democratically elected president back home with his people, back home in order to help rebuild his country," Glover told Reuters.