South Africa said it could not hold Aristide, left, hostage if he wanted to go home [AFP]

Haiti's former president has arrived back home from South Africa, ending seven years in exile.

Jean-Bertrand Aristide waved aside US concerns that his homecoming might disrupt Haiti's presidential runoff scheduled for Sunday, flying to Port-au-Prince, the capital, in a charter plane with his family.

The plane touched down at Port-au-Prince airport at 9:10am (1410GMT) on Friday.

A small crowd of journalists, dignitaries, airport workers and former members of his security team mobbed Aristide as soon as he descended the steps of the small plane.

He waved and blew a kiss to the crowd, but made no statement before entering a VIP lounge inside the airport terminal. His wife, Mildred, wept.

Hundreds of people gathered outside the airport waving flags and photos of Aristide, known affectionately by many Haitians as "Titide".

Aristide, 57, who says Washington helped engineer his ouster in 2004, insists he will not be involved in politics.

He wants, he says, to lead his foundation's efforts to improve education in the impoverished Caribbean nation devastated by last year's catastrophic earthquake.

Al Jazeera's Sebastian Walker, reporting from Port-au-Prince, said the arrival of Aristide is "an incredibly significant development in a very sensitive electoral process".

"Aristide has a huge influence ... and whatever he says about the elections; whether people should turn up and go and vote is going to be significant," he said.

Aristide's ousting

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 which culminated in protests leading to his ouster in 2004.

Before Aristide headed home, Barack Obama, the US president, called his South African counterpart, Jacob Zuma, to stress the importance of the former president not returning before the poll.

But South Africa said it could not stop Aristide from going back to his country.

"What I should stress is that we are not sending former president Aristide to Haiti," said Collins Chabane, the cabinet minister.

"He was given the passport by the government of Haiti and we can't hold him hostage if he wants to go," Chabane was quoted as telling a news conference.

Sunday's vote pits Mirlande Manigat, a law professor, against entertainer and music star Michel Martelly in a clash of contrasts that has jazzed up the first second-round runoff in the history of Haiti's presidential elections.

Haiti held elections last November but they were marred by fraud and ended with no clear winner. One of the three main contenders, who finished third, said he was rigged out of a second run-off place.

Source: Al Jazeera and agencies