Haiti Disintegrates As Political Rivals Take to the Streets

December 10, 2010 - 6:02 AM

Port-au-Prince, Haiti (AP) - Haitians prepared for armed clashes and more days of flaming barricades as rival candidates called on supporters to take to streets and tip the balance in a sharply disputed presidential election leading.

Gunfire ripped through post-earthquake shanties near the ruins of the national palace on Thursday afternoon, killing at least one man and injuring several more, witnesses said.

Third-place candidate and carnival singer Michel "Sweet Micky" Martelly blamed the attack on supporters of government-backed candidate Jude Celestin, who is edging him out by less than 1 percentage point for a spot in a January run-off.

The provisional electoral council announced a seeming compromise on Thursday afternoon with a re-count of tally sheets at which international observers and the three leading candidates -- Celestin, Martelly and first-place vote-getter and former first lady Mirlande Manigat -- could attend.

But the situation appeared to continue worsening.

The United States reissued a travel warning recommending all U.S. citizens reconsider nonessential trips to Haiti -- citing high crime, the cholera outbreak and social unrest. Canada closed its embassy until further notice because of the post-electoral violence. Flights were canceled in and out of the capital's international airport.

The Nov. 28 election hobbled by disorganization, voter intimidation and fraud alleged by every active candidate in the race. Less than a quarter of eligible voters are said to have cast valid ballots.

Martelly was long popular as a carnival leader and singer of kompa, a jazzy Haitian dance music he blended with R&B and satiric lyrics. His political popularity took off in the weeks before the vote and seems to have surged since it appeared he had been narrowly disqualified from the race.

Pro-Martelly riots began Tuesday night immediately following the announcement of results that ostensibly eliminated him from the second-round runoff. The demonstrations were rowdy but violence was mostly directed at property and symbols of opposing candidates. Rocks were thrown at well-armored U.N. soldiers who have responded with a constant barrage of exploding tear gas canisters and rubber bullets.

Port-au-Prince and other cities including Les Cayes and Cap-Haitien have been paralyzed by barricades, which are sharply criticized by aid workers impeded from treating an ongoing cholera epidemic that has killed more than 2,000 people. Casualty figures are sketchy but radio reports say that several people have been killed.

Large-scale demonstrations were also reported in the volatile northwestern city of Gonaives. Former rebel leader Guy Philippe took to the airways to further fan the flames, accusing all candidates of having cheated in the election.

Celestin made a rare television appearance on Thursday night to call for the mobilization of his supporters and an end to the riots and destruction of property.

"I guarantee you, your vote will not be trampled on," he said in an edited, taped appearance in which he often seemed to be reading cue cards. "We have already taken measures to ensure the (electoral council) will respect our votes."

His campaign chief, Sen. Joseph Lambert, told Haitian media earlier that supporters should "clean up" the streets of Port-au-Prince -- a reference to the traffic-halting barricades set up mostly by Martelly backers.

Martelly's campaign accused Lambert of provoking violence.

"He is talking about people in possession of weapons who are ready to fight. We do not have any weapons on our side. The fight we are having is a legal fight," said Martelly adviser Daniel Supplice.

"Unfortunately there probably will be clashes in some areas," he added.

Violence is already taking its toll. Victims of the Champ de Mars shooting were rushed to the overburdened and underfunded general hospital, where medical workers struggled to care for some and redirected others to a private hospital several barricades away.

"They were already on the radio saying he was shot and I didn't believe it until I came to find out," said book vendor Jacqueline Sanon, whose brother, Fitzner, took a bullet to the upper body. "I don't know if he is alive ... we are just waiting for an answer."

On Friday, officials will sort through the legal challenges and continue reviewing the vote count. Council president Gaillot Dorsainvil said on radio that the re-count was necessary, given the evident dissatisfaction of many voters, protests and violence that followed the publication of preliminary results."

The U.S. Embassy has said the preliminary results appeared to conflict with reports from observers who monitored the count.

Protests are fueled by widespread disaffection with the government institutions and vitriol at outgoing President Rene Preval, whose Unity party picked Celestin, little-known head of the state-run construction company, as its candidate.

His own election was also decided through riots in 2006, which forced the cancellation of a second-round vote through a compromise that gave him more than 50 percent of the vote.

Those supporters turned on him when he failed to bring ex-President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, his former mentor, back from South African exile or improve the economy. Riots fueled by high food prices forced out his prime minister in 2008. His popularity bottomed out when Preval disappeared from public sight after the Jan. 12 earthquake and presided over a stalled reconstruction that has helped few people regain homes or income.

"We stood up for Preval then, but now we stand up against him. We thought he would bring us food, education, health ... We thought he would stand for the people. But he betrayed us," said Clarel Meriland, an unemployed 23 year old who took the streets as a teenager in 2006.

The election was mandated by Haiti's constitution. But there were many human-rights advocates who said it should not be held so soon after the earthquake, in the midst of a raging cholera epidemic that has claimed thousands of lives.

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Associated Press writer Jacob Kushner in Port-au-Prince contributed to this report.