Former Haitian dictator Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier ensconced himself Monday in a high-end hotel after his surprise return to a country deep in crisis, leaving many to wonder if the once-feared strongman will prompt renewed conflict in the midst of a political stalemate.
Duvalier met with allies inside the hotel in the hills above downtown Port-au-Prince and spoke publicly only through emissaries, who gave vague explanations for his sudden and mysterious appearance -- nearly 25 years after he was forced into exile by a popular uprising against his brutal regime.
Henry R. Sterlin, a former ambassador who said he was speaking on behalf of Duvalier, portrayed the 59-year-old former "president for life" as merely a concerned elder statesmen who wanted to see the effects of the devastating Jan. 12, 2010, earthquake on his homeland.
"He was deeply hurt in his soul after the earthquake," Sterlin said. "He wanted to come back to see how is the actual Haitian situation of the people and the country."
Duvalier -- who assumed power in 1971 at age 19 after the death of his father, Francois "Papa Doc" Duvalier -- still has some support in Haiti, and millions are too young to remember life under his dictatorship. But his abrupt return Sunday still sent shock waves through the country.
State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said in a Twitter post that the United States was surprised by the timing of Duvalier's visit. "It adds unpredictability at an uncertain time in Haiti's election process."
President Rene Preval, a former anti-Duvalier activist, made no immediate public statements on the former dictator's re-emergence, though he told reporters in 2007 that Duvalier would face justice for the deaths of thousands of people and the theft of millions of dollars if he returned.
Human rights groups urged Haiti to prosecute Duvalier for widespread abuses.
Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive said that he is aware of the accusations but that an arrest is unlikely anytime soon. "We want to be a government that respects the law, and to arrest somebody you have to a judiciary process," he said.
The government of France, where Duvalier has spent most of his exile, said it had no advance notice of the trip.
Duvalier formed part of a father-and-son dynasty that presided over one of the darkest chapters in Haitian history, a period when a thuggish government secret police force known as the Tonton Macoute stifled any dissent, torturing and killing opponents.
He came back on an Air France jet in a jacket and tie to hugs from supporters, waving to a crowd of about 200 as he climbed in a sport utility vehicle and headed to a hotel with Veronique Roy, his longtime companion.
Later, Duvalier appeared on a balcony of the Karibe Hotel and waved to supporters and journalists outside. Roy told reporters at one point that "Baby Doc" would stay only three days in Haiti.
Once a teenage ruler, Duvalier is now a large, stocky man with graying hair.