The former president spoke in a hotel meeting room reserved by the South African foreign affairs ministry.

Hugely popular

Aristide became popular in his homeland as a priest in the Haitian slum of La Saline. He was first elected president in 1990 but was ousted in a military coup the following year.

US troops sent by then US Pesident Bill Clinton, currently a United Nations special envoy to Haiti, restored Aristide to power in 1994. After stepping down, Aristide was re-elected in 2000 but was ousted again in the bloody 2004 rebellion.

However, during riots in Haiti in 2008 over soaring food prices, there was a popular call by Haitians for Aristide's return - showing that he remains hugely popular.

If Aristide does return, political instability in an impoverished nation struggling to dig itself out from the massive 7.0-magnitude earthquake could result.

Aristide has previously hinted at returning, saying he merely wants to be a teacher. But his enduring popularity and ability to galvanize Haitians would likely propel him into the political spotlight.

"We feel deeply and profoundly that we should be there, in Haiti, with them, trying our best to prevent death," Aristide told reporters.

Academic life

Saul Kgomotso Molobi, a South African foreign affairs ministry official who accompanied Aristide to the briefing, said South Africa knows of no plans for Aristide to return to Haiti.

Molobi said he could not answer questions about what arrangement would have to be made.

Aristide and his wife live with their two daughters in a government villa in Pretoria, South Africa's capital, just north of Johannesburg.

The couple has embraced an academic life, with Aristide writing on the linguistics of Zulu and Haitian Creole, as well as on the theology of love.