Candidates call for vote postponement in cholera-hit Haiti

Four Haitian presidential candidates have called for postponing elections set for November 28 as the country struggles with a cholera epidemic that has claimed nearly 1,200 lives amid protests targeting UN peacekeepers.

Gangs of angry Haitian youths trawled Port-au-Prince as violence aimed at UN peacekeepers blamed for the cholera crisis spread to the capital after deadly rioting in the north.

Authorities have maintained that the election will not be postponed, but four candidates -- Josette Bijou, Gerard Blot, Garaudy Laguerre and Wilson Jeudy -- sought a poll delay.

"We urge authorities to postpone the date of the elections, and to establish and publish a plan to battle the cholera epidemic that threatens the lives of all Haitians," the presidential hopefuls, none of whom is a frontrunner in the polls, said in a joint statement.

Prominent candidates have urged the elections be held as scheduled, to avoid further political instability.

Meanwhile, a senior UN official on Saturday expressed disappointment with the international response to the organization's appeal to collect 164 million dollars to help Haiti combat the epidemic.

"While we are very grateful for the contributions received so far, both cash and in-kind, so far we only have received less than 10 percent of what we need," said UN Humanitarian Coordinator Nigel Fisher.

"Critical supplies and skills are urgently needed," he added. "We need doctors, nurses, water purification systems, chlorine tablets, soap, oral rehydration salts, tents for cholera treatment centres and a range of other supplies."

The response has also been slowed down by recent violence in Cap Haitien, where most anti-cholera work has been suspended for the past four days.

UN authorities also called for an end to protests and a French cholera expert advising Haitian health authorities warned that the "unusual" month-old epidemic could be far more severe than figures suggest.

Gerard Chevallier, who is advising Haiti's health ministry, warned that the country needed to focus on trying to halt the spread of the disease detected a month ago.

"The mechanics of the epidemic are unusual, swift and severe," Chevallier told AFP in an interview. "The whole country is not affected, but the epidemic will spread."

Officials say 1,186 people have died and nearly 20,000 people have been treated in hospital, but Chevallier noted that in such epidemics, especially in impoverished nations like Haiti, the toll is "under-assessed" and almost always higher than the official figure.

"Reports are imperfect. There are areas where people die and nobody knows," Chevallier said. "Two thirds of the territory is accessible only on foot."

The story of a small hospital in the central town of Hinche could serve as a vivid illustration. On Saturday, the hospital's death toll from the epidemic reached 22.

"It is not going well," complained hospital director Doctor Prince-Pierre Soncon. "When the epidemic was just beginning, we reported only three new cases every day. Then their number jumped to 15 and then to 35. This morning we have already had 60."

Edmond Mulet, head of the UN peacekeeping mission in Haiti, said the protests against the blue helmets were putting aid and supplies at risk.

Demonstrators must stop blocking roads, bridges and airports so that vital humanitarian assistance can reach the thousands of people affected by the epidemic, he said.

On Friday, youths threw rocks at military trucks in downtown Port-au-Prince while soldiers responded with volleys of tear gas.

UN agencies have made several pleas for an end to the violence which they have said is threatening lives as the epidemic spreads.

The unrest is preventing the UN's World Food Program from providing daily hot meals to 190,000 children in schools in Cap Haitien, officials said.

Rumors have swirled for weeks that the cholera emanated from septic tanks at a base for Nepalese UN 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.

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

"It is not reasonable to talk of postponement. We are at a point where people are willing to go vote," argued frontrunner Mirlande Manigat.

Three cases of cholera have been found in the neighboring Dominican Republic, including a newborn baby and her grandmother in the capital Santo Domingo -- who have never been to Haiti.

Two cases have appeared in the US state of Florida -- both from people who traveled from Haiti.

Argentina said it was sending aid to Haiti including rehydration salts and medical equipment.

Source: AFP

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