Four dead as Haiti vote protests turn ugly

PORT-AU-PRINCE (AFP) – Thousands of protesters rampaged in Haitian towns, torching buildings in armed clashes that left four dead after election results triggered bitter accusations of vote-rigging.

The streets of the capital were calmer as night fell, but still-smoking tire and trash barricades recalled a day of anger among supporters of popular singer Michel Martelly who had, according to official results, been narrowly knocked out of the race for the presidency.

Widespread unrest here — much feared ever since Haiti’s catastrophic January earthquake — saw running clashes between police and rock-throwing youths throughout Tuesday night and into the day.

Rioters destroyed offices of the national finance ministry and a branch of the Provisional Electoral Council (CEP), which had announced the result.

To the dismay of Martelly’s supporters, President Rene Preval’s handpicked protege Jude Celestin defied predictions to snap up second place in the race and a coveted slot in January’s run-off, in which he will battle a former first lady for the nation’s top job.

Preval had called for calm in a country still struggling to rebuild after January’s devastating earthquake while reeling from a bloody history of political upheaval and dictatorships.

“Demonstrate, that is your right. But don’t attack public buildings, businesses or private property,” Preval said on Haiti’s national radio, after the headquarters of his ruling INITE (UNITY) party were set ablaze.

“You are giving Haiti a bad image. Conflicts are not resolved by setting things on fire and breaking things. Pull yourselves together, Haitians.”

The singer-turned-politician, known popularly by the nickname “Sweet Micky,” however slammed the election result in a radio address, insisting the international community and election observers who recognized the results were “incorrect.”

“I understand your anger,” he told supporters in Creole. “Protesting without violence is the people’s right.”

Demonstrations, which had rumbled through the night, turned violent in several of major cities as well as the capital Port-au-Prince.

Three young protesters were shot dead in clashes in the southern town of Cayes, some 200 kilometers (120 miles) south of the capital, former senator Gabriel Fortune told AFP.

“One of the youths was shot in front of the election offices by Senegalese UN troops and two others were killed at the entrance to the town, where a police station was ransacked and the police had their guns stolen,” he added.

“Ninety percent of the public buildings in the town have been set on fire, and a bank and private homes have been attacked by young people.”

A fourth person was killed in armed clashes in the second city of Cap Haitien, local media reported.

The outbreak of violence caused officials to close the country’s airports as several major airlines canceled their flights to and from Haiti.

Martelly has until December 20 to formally lodge a complaint with the electoral commission and the US embassy in Port-au-Prince has voiced concern at the “inconsistent” results.

EU chief diplomat Catherine Ashton has also expressed concern at “significant differences between the projected outcome of the elections… and the preliminary results released.”

The singer was pushed into third place by fewer than 7,000 votes by Celestin, who will now run for the presidency on January 16 against former first lady Mirlande Manigat, officials said.

The results credited Manigat with 31 percent of the vote, Celestin with 22 percent and Martelly with 21.84 percent.

Political turmoil only compounds Haiti’s misery.

Much of the capital still lies in ruins since the January 12 earthquake that killed 250,000 people and left 1.3 million others homeless who now live in precarious tent cities.

Ten months after one of the worst natural disaster of modern times, Haiti was also hit by the first cholera outbreak here in more than a century. The disease, which erupted in a central river valley, has now spread to the teeming capital and killed more than 2,120 people.

Whoever wins the run-off faces the daunting task of rebuilding a traumatized nation of 10 million that was the poorest in the Americas even before the earthquake.

The US embassy said Celestin’s success was “inconsistent with the published results of the National Election Observation Council (CNO),” which is funded by the European Union and had more than 5,500 observers at 1,600 voting centers nationwide.

It estimated that Celestin was trailing a clear third behind Martelly.

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