NAIROBI, Kenya — South Africa's leaders welcomed former Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide at Johannesburg International Airport on Monday with all the ceremony reserved for a head of state, underscoring the government's continued support for the man who was driven from power three months ago.
Aristide was embraced by President Thabo Mbeki and greeted by a line of government ministers. The former Haitian leader thanked them in Zulu -- "Siyabonga" -- and said he was happy to be in South Africa.
In a written statement marking Aristide's arrival, the Foreign Ministry referred to him as President Aristide and said he and his family and aides would live in South Africa until Haiti was stable enough for his return. But amid suggestions that Aristide may never be able to return, the government has made it clear he is welcome to stay indefinitely.
The South African president has been one of Aristide's closest allies. Mbeki was one of only a few foreign dignitaries to attend celebrations marking Haiti's bicentennial in January, and his government has repeatedly called for an inquiry into Aristide's removal from power.
Aristide, who left Haiti on Feb. 29 in the midst of an armed rebellion, says he remains Haiti's legitimate leader. He has repeatedly accused France and the United States, which helped negotiate his exit, of forcing him out. Washington and Paris deny the claim.
While in South Africa, Aristide is expected to stay in Pretoria, the administrative capital. His plan to settle for even a short time in the country has generated controversy there, and the decision to welcome him was delayed until after the recent elections, which were won by Mbeki's ruling African National Congress.
The opposition Democratic Alliance has condemned the decision to accept Aristide, questioning the legal basis of the move and pointing to the cost of providing shelter for a leader with doubtful democratic credentials, as well as his family and aides.
After fleeing Haiti, Aristide spent time in the Central African Republic and Jamaica before landing in South Africa.
In the government statement, Deputy Foreign Minister Aziz Pahad said the decision to accept Aristide was intended to help stabilize the situation in Haiti. "South Africa has a responsibility as an African country and as part of the international community to ensure that democracy and peace prevail in Haiti and that the people of Haiti are able to choose who their leaders should be," it said.
Despite the questions raised about the decision, Pahad's statement urged South Africans to accept Aristide's presence with "the requisite level of maturity, respect and dignity."
On arrival in Johannesburg, Aristide said many of the black slaves who fought for independence in Haiti two centuries ago had come from South Africa.
"A good number of slaves who fought in the revolution were born in South Africa and served in African armies prior to their enslavement," Aristide said, according to news service reports.
"Instead of Europe, we are welcome in Africa, our mother continent, our temporary home until we are back in Haiti."