By Joseph Guyler Delva
PORT-AU-PRINCE (Reuters) - Haitian President Michel Martelly sought to rally prominent political figures behind him on Wednesday, meeting with two former presidents in an effort to encourage reconciliation among past rivals.
Martelly, who swept to the presidency by winning an election runoff in March, held separate meetings with former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide and former dictator Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier at their private residences in Port-au-Prince.
He said he had proposed the creation of a council of former Haitian presidents he hoped would assist in building consensus in a country often torn by political faction-fighting, and still struggling to recover from a devastating 2010 earthquake.
"As president, I want to work with you and we have to work together," Martelly told Aristide.
Many Haitians have called repeatedly for the country's divided political class to find common ground to help lift Haiti out of its longtime status as the poorest country in the Americas.
Notorious for decades of dictatorship, corruption and instability, Haiti is facing a huge reconstruction task after last year's earthquake and a cholera epidemic.
Martelly, a former pop star with no previous government experience, took office in May. He is facing the challenge of governing with a parliament dominated by rival political parties.
Aristide returned home to Haiti in March after seven years in exile. The former Roman Catholic priest was ousted from power in 2004 in an armed rebellion but still commands a loyal following among poor Haitians.
Since his return, Aristide has generally avoided public appearances and commenting on local politics.
"I am withdrawing gradually from active politics," Aristide said. "But I remain open to help."
Speaking to reporters before their meeting, Martelly acknowledged previous political differences with Aristide.
'A NEW PROJECT'
Martelly also sat down for a private meeting with Duvalier in a private hillside villa overlooking Port-au-Prince.
Duvalier returned unexpectedly to his Caribbean homeland in January after 25 years of exile in France. He faces charges in Haiti of embezzlement, corruption and crimes against humanity stemming from his 1971-1986 rule.
"Your visit is a move in favor of national reconciliation," Duvalier said, reading a statement after the two men met.
"I take the opportunity to call on all political leaders to put aside rancor and for them to understand the need to come together in the face of the numerous challenges we are confronting," he said.
"Baby Doc" Duvalier, the son of Haiti's feared dictator, Francois "Papa Doc" Duvalier, still has ties with some of Haiti's small but powerful political elite.
On Tuesday, Martelly held a meeting with former President Prosper Avril, who as an army general led a military coup against a transitional government in 1988. He resigned two years later.
"We all need to stand together behind a new project," Martelly said. "All of us need to rebuild our country. And that's when we'll be able to talk about a dignified Haiti."
(Writing by Kevin Gray; Editing by Pascal Fletcher and Peter Cooney)