(Reuters) – Protesters in Haiti, blaming United Nations troops for a cholera epidemic that has killed hundreds of people, attacked U.N. peacekeepers in two cities on Monday.
One protester was shot dead in the clashes and six U.N. peacekeepers were injured.
The U.N. mission blamed the violence in Cap-Haitien and Hinche on political agitators it said were bent on stirring up unrest ahead of presidential and legislative elections set for November 28 in the earthquake-hit Caribbean country.
In Cap-Haitien, Haiti’s second city on the north coast, U.N. blue helmets were fired on by armed demonstrators and one demonstrator was killed when a peacekeeper opened fire in self-defense, the U.N. mission (MINUSTAH) said in a statement.
U.N. troops also used tear gas against the protesters.
“MINUSTAH reiterates its firm commitment to support the Haitian national police in maintaining order and security in the country to guarantee the continuation of the electoral process and Haiti’s reconstruction,” the U.N. statement said.
At Hinche in the central region, U.N. peacekeepers were among several people injured by stone-throwing protesters who attacked Nepalese troops stationed there.
The Nepalese have been the subject of widespread rumors that they brought the cholera bacteria behind the month-long epidemic of the deadly disease in Haiti that has killed more than 900 people and sickened close to 15,000.
The U.N. mission, which is helping the impoverished country rebuild after a devastating earthquake in January, has denied rumors that latrines close to a river at the Nepalese U.N. camp were the cause of the cholera outbreak.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said DNA testing shows the cholera strain in Haiti is most closely related to a strain from South Asia. But it has not pinpointed the source or linked it directly to the Nepalese troops, whom the U.N. says tested negative for the disease.
Officials and residents in Cap-Haitien said earlier on Monday that hundreds of protesters yelling anti-U.N. slogans had set up burning barricades and torched a police station.
“The whole city is blocked, businesses and schools have closed, cars have been burned. It’s chaos here,” a businessman in Cap-Haitien, Georgesmain Prophete, told Reuters.
The cholera epidemic has inflicted another crisis on the Western Hemisphere’s poorest state as it struggles to rebuild from the earthquake that killed more than 250,000 people.
Fear, uncertainty and anger have swept a country already traumatized by the earthquake, which also left 1.5 million people homeless.
Haiti’s government and the more than 12,000-strong U.N. peacekeeping mission have signaled their determination to go ahead with the November 28 elections.
“MINUSTAH urges the population to remain vigilant and not to allow itself to be manipulated by the enemies of stability and democracy in the country,” the U.N. mission said.
Nevertheless, the violent incidents raise questions about security for the elections, which will choose a successor to President Rene Preval, a 99-member parliament and 11 members of the 30-seat Senate.
Analysts say the elections could be the most important in Haiti’s history but many see the path to the polls threatened by risks of political violence, as well as the huge humanitarian challenges.
Joany Caneus, director of police for the northern region where Cap-Haitien is located, said the anti-U.N. demonstrators there set fire to the Pont Neuf police station.
“You can imagine how difficult it is when we cannot have the usual backup of the U.N. troops because they themselves are in difficulty,” Caneus told Reuters, adding that the U.N. peacekeepers in the city had asked for a Haitian police patrol to be posted in front of their headquarters.
“So we don’t only have to protect the population, we also have to protect U.N. troops … We are working on ways to control the situation.”
Last month, in the central town of Saint-Marc, at the heart of the cholera outbreak, stone-throwing residents apparently fearing contagion disrupted the setting up of a cholera treatment center, burning several tents.
Experts say Haiti’s widespread poverty and poor sanitation have been major factors in the rapid spread of the cholera epidemic, which has affected six of the country’s 10 provinces. The last cholera epidemic in Haiti was a century ago.
But the experts say it is difficult to trace the source of the outbreak with certainty or determine how it re-entered the country after such a long absence.