By Joseph Guyler Delva and Pascal Fletcher
PORT-AU-PRINCE (Reuters) - Former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide returned to Haiti on Friday, ending seven years of exile in South Africa despite U.S. objections and just two days before a crucial presidential election.
Supporters whooped and cheered at Port-au-Prince airport as a smiling, clearly delighted Aristide, accompanied by his family and U.S. actor and black rights activist Danny Glover, emerged from the charter plane that brought him home.
"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, white shirt and striped tie said in his emotional first comments to 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.
Aristide, 57, who was ousted from power in 2004 through an armed rebellion, is a divisive figure in Haiti -- very popular among the poor but reviled by business leaders.
He ignored a direct plea from the United States to delay his return until after Sunday's presidential vote in the Caribbean nation.
Washington and other western donors, who have pledged billions of dollars to help rebuild Haiti following last year's devastating earthquake, had expressed fears that the homecoming of the charismatic leftist former Catholic priest could be disruptive for the run-off election.
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 was barred from registering its own candidate for the elections.
Recalling the victims of the 2010 earthquake and hundreds of thousands of homeless survivors still living in squalid tent camps across the wrecked capital, he said: "Your suffering is running through my blood like a river".
CLOSE ELECTION CONTEST
In Sunday's vote, the first 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 oversee the post-quake recovery and administer reconstruction funds.
Blue-helmeted U.N. peacekeepers backed by armored vehicles, who are providing security for the polls, reinforced Haitian police around the airport during Aristide's arrival.
A large enthusiastic crowd outside carried banners and posters welcoming "Titide", as Aristide is affectionately known. "This is a great day for the Haitian people," said Ansyto Felix, an activist for Aristide's Fanmi Lavalas party.
Before Aristide's return this week, U.S. President Barack Obama had called his South African counterpart, Jacob Zuma, to stress the importance of Aristide not returning before the poll. But South Africa said it could not stop Aristide from going back to his country.
Despite a generally calm second-round campaign, tensions and rhetoric have heated up and there are fears Aristide's presence and large numbers of his followers in the streets could stir up a volatile electoral atmosphere.
"Haiti needs political stability to move ahead with development efforts," Ambassador Albert Ramdin, assistant secretary general of the Organization of American States, said in a statement appealing for calm in the election.
Aides to Aristide say he intends to stay out of politics and use his expertise in education to assist in Haiti's recovery from the earthquake.
Both presidential candidates have said Aristide has the right as a citizen to return to his country, although they would have preferred him to come back after Sunday's vote.
Haiti's government said it had drawn up a security plan in the expectation Aristide's return would generate crowds.
His supporters had eagerly awaited his return.
"President Aristide is a strong leader who doesn't take orders from a superpower such as the United States," said Johnny Mazart, 36, a carpenter. "That's why they ousted him, because he listened to the Haitian people, not foreigners."
Aristide became Haiti's first freely elected president in 1991, but was overthrown after seven months. Re-elected in 2000, his second term saw economic instability and violence.
(Editing by Kieran Murray)