Anti-UN unrest spreads to Haiti capital

PORT-AU-PRINCE (AFP) – Gangs of angry Haitians clashed in Port-au-Prince with UN peacekeepers as pre-election violence spread to the capital after days of deadly rioting in the north.

Organizers had urged people to vent their anger at the United Nations and the Haitian authorities in a demonstration opposite the presidential palace, but what transpired was more like urban guerrilla warfare.

Clashes lasted for hours in putrid camps as youths threw stones and troops threw tear gas from armored UN trucks under the squinted gaze of watery-eyed residents.

"The UN came here to kill us, to poison us," shouted Alexis Clerius, a 40-year-old farmer, as he erected a barricade in the main Champ de Mars square.

Sporadic gunfire could be heard as gangs roamed the streets of the quake-ravaged capital, blocking roads with burning tires and dumpsters full of rotten garbage.

The powder keg situation stems from claims the cholera emanated from septic tanks at a base for Nepalese peacekeepers in central Haiti, leaking into the Artibonite River, where locals drink, wash clothes and bathe.

The UN says it tested some of the Nepalese and found no trace of cholera, while health officials say it is impossible to know and the focus must be on containing the epidemic and not divining its source.

President Rene Preval has pleaded for calm and denounced unnamed groups for taking advantage of the cholera to stir things up ahead of November 28 national elections.

Less than 10 days before polls to choose Preval's successor, political forces are being blamed for whipping up tensions. MINUSTAH has warned people not to be manipulated by "enemies of stability and democracy."

But in the poorest country in the Americas -- even before the January earthquake turned the capital to rubble and killed 250,000 people -- there is real discontent and MINUSTAH is a highly visible presence and an easy target.

"Haitian leaders have forgotten the people," Ladiou Novembre, a 38-year-old secondary school teacher joining the scattered demonstrations, told AFP.

"There is no infrastructure, no education, cholera is ravaging the people and the president says nothing. MINUSTAH should be keeping peace in the country, but instead they make things worse. MINUSTAH is killing Haitians."

Hundreds of rock-throwing youths attacked one open-top truck carrying members of MINUSTAH, the UN force accused by some of being the source of a cholera outbreak that has now killed more than 1,100 people.

The international peacekeepers, long unpopular in the troubled Caribbean nation, pointed guns at the youths and one briefly fell out of the vehicle under a volley of stones before managing to climb back in.

Protesters shouted slogans like: "Cholera: It's MINUSTAH who gave it to us!" and "MINUSTAH, Go home!"

Violence has spread from the north, where three Haitians were killed in riots this week in Cap-Haitien. A police station in the second city was set ablaze and thousands of protesters threatened to storm a UN compound.

The unrest is especially worrying as the UN peacekeepers are scheduled to help organize and preside over the elections.

Aid workers say the violence in the north is hampering efforts to treat cholera victims and stop the spread of the disease, which officials warn could kill 10,000 people over the next 12 months if it continues unabated.

US health experts warned on Thursday that the epidemic was unpredictable and repeated outbreaks could wreak havoc for years to come.

"The Haitian population has no preexisting immunity to cholera, and environmental conditions in Haiti are favorable for its continued spread," the the US-based Centers for Disease Control said in a progress report.

More than 1,100 people have died from the diarrhea-causing illness since it emerged there last month, with more than 18,000 people infected.

One isolated case has been found in the neighboring Dominican Republic and a second in the US state of Florida -- both from people who traveled from Haiti. Dominican authorities are investigating a possible second case.

Health officials fear cholera could spread like wildfire if it infiltrates squalid relocation camps around the capital where hundreds of thousands of quake refugees live in cramped and unsanitary conditions.

Most deaths have been in central and northern Haiti, with the disease not yet widespread in the capital Port-au-Prince, which was badly damaged in a January quake that killed 250,000 people and left over a million homeless.

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