* Protesters warn March election at risk if return blocked
* US and other donors fear destabilization effect
By Joseph Guyler Delva and Allyn Gaestel
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Feb 18 Around 3,000 followers
of Haiti's ousted former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide
marched in support of his return from exile on Friday, and
protest leaders threatened to disrupt an upcoming presidential
run-off vote if his homecoming is blocked.
The noisy march by pro-Aristide protesters converged on the
earthquake-damaged presidential palace in the crowded capital
Port-au-Prince, but ended peacefully under the eyes of Haitian
riot police and United Nations peacekeepers.
The demonstrators carried banners with slogans like "Titide
(Aristide) we are waiting for you" and chanted "Aristide or
Death." Some waved posters of the firebrand populist former
president, who was ousted in a 2004 revolt and has lived in
exile in South Africa. He has a passionate following in his
Caribbean homeland, the Western Hemisphere's poorest state.
Aristide's announcement last month that he plans to come
home has generated widespread anticipation in Haiti, which is
struggling to recover from a crippling 2010 earthquake and held
a chaotic first round of presidential and legislative elections
Haiti's government has issued a diplomatic passport to the
former leader, who is expected back in the coming weeks,
although exactly when is still uncertain.
Factbox on Aristide: [ID:nN17109082]
Full coverage of turmoil, quake recovery: [ID:nHAITI]
Haiti's presidential candidates: [ID:nN03240955]
The United States and other western aid donors, who have
pledged billions of dollars for Haiti's post-quake rebuilding,
fear that the return of such a polarizing figure as Aristide
would be disruptive, especially if it occurs before the
decisive presidential run-off on March 20. [ID:nN17142680]
The presidential run-off pits former first lady Mirlande
Manigat against musician Michel "Sweet Mickey" Martelly.
"The U.S. has no right to decide whether President Aristide
should come back or not," said Rene Civil, one of the protest
organizers and a local leader of Aristide's Fanmi Lavalas
party, the country's biggest, which was excluded from the
current elections over previous registration problems.
'A WARM-UP SESSION'
Civil warned that if outgoing President Rene Preval and his
foreign donor partners do not facilitate Aristide's return,
Aristide supporters would mobilize in protest and this could
block the presidential run-off election.
"Today was just a warm-up session," he told Reuters.
"Without a return (of Aristide), there won't be a second
round," the pro-Aristide protesters chorused in Creole.
They also called for the cancellation of the elections,
which have been plagued by fraud allegations and protests.
"They pushed Lavalas to one side, and we're the most
popular party in the country. There can't be a real election,
its a 'selection' without Lavalas," said one of the
demonstrators, Jonnie Narcisse.
Aristide became Haiti's first freely elected president in
1991 but was deposed by a coup after only seven months.
Re-elected in 2000, his second term was soured by economic
instability and gang and drug-trafficking violence. He was
ousted again in a 2004 rebellion that included former soldiers.
Aristide claimed it was orchestrated by the United States.
Haiti's fight to recover from the devastating earthquake a
year ago has been complicated by a cholera epidemic which has
killed more than 4,500 people since mid-October.
(Writing by Pascal Fletcher)