Aristide: former president

The South African government has confirmed that it is pursuing diplomatic channels to repatriate Jean-Bertrand Aristide to Haiti, though the message from President Rene Preval's government is "stay where you are".

Aristide has lived in Pretoria since 2004 when Thabo Mbeki granted him, his wife and two children a safe haven after he was forced to flee the Caribbean nation. The former president tested the political waters on Friday when he said he is ready to return "today, tomorrow, at any time to join the people of Haiti to share in their suffering" in the wake of Tuesday's deadly earthquake.

"We feel deeply and profoundly that we should be there, in Haiti, with them, trying our best to prevent death," the 56-year-old said.

Saul Kgomotso Molobi of the South African Department of International Relations and Cooperation (DIRCA) later confirmed that "we are pursuing diplomatic channels behind the scenes to have him returned permanently" but on the strict condition "that he doesn't return to or seek a political office, which Dr Aristide has agreed to".

However, top Haitian officials say in response that now is not the time to make any kind of return, political or otherwise, as it would only add political turmoil to the natural disaster that has unfolded.

"The government line has not changed, and he knows that," Haiti's ambassador to Washington, Raymond Joseph said. "Nobody, not even President Preval, can stop him from coming home. The constitution does not prevent any citizen of Haiti from coming to their country. But the same constitution also says that everyone is responsible for his actions before the law."

Multiple charges of corruption, state-sponsored torture and rights abuses hang over Aristide's head. Amid resistance to his violence-ridden second term in office and threats of reprisals, the governments of the US and France stepped in in 2004 and Aristide eventually fled, first to Jamaica and then to South Africa. "He needs to leave this country alone," says Gerard Latortue, a former UN Haitian official who headed the interim government post-2004. "We need to rebuild this country now, not break it apart."