Published: Feb 18, 2011 8:58 PM EST
Updated: Feb 18, 2011 5:59 PM EST

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (AP) - Several thousand supporters of ousted Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide marched through the capital Friday as people close to the former leader say he plans to return soon from exile in South Africa.

Police set up barricades around the National Palace as about 4,000 marchers gathered in the Bel Air neighborhood, but the demonstration seemed largely festive, with loudspeakers blaring music and young men drinking beer in the hot sun.

 "We must have the return of Dr. President Aristide as a simple citizen to help us get better as a country as a people," said Eugune Mirthil, an unemployed 37-year-old who taped two photos of the ousted leader to his white T-shirt as he marched with the crowd.

Aristide, a former priest and Haiti's first democratically elected president, was forced to flee the country in February 2004 amid a violent rebellion. He still retains strong support, particularly in the slums of Port-au-Prince. A U.S. State Department spokesman recently said Washington believes that Aristide's re-emergence would disrupt the calm needed for the March 20 vote and urged him not to come back to Haiti ahead of the election.

Maryse Narcisse, coordinator of the executive council of Aristide's Lavalas party, said he would ignore the plea. Asked for specifics, she smiled and shook her head. "I cannot say when exactly but he will be back before the March 20 elections," she said.

 (Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)