PORT-AU-PRINCE (AFP) – The top UN envoy in Haiti called for an end to protests against UN peacekeepers whom Haitians blame for importing a cholera epidemic that has now claimed nearly 1,200 lives.
The plea came as preparations for the November 28 national poll to choose President Rene Preval's successor pressed ahead, despite violent clashes with the peacekeepers.
"Every second that passes can save or break thousands of lives," Edmond Mulet, head of the UN peacekeeping mission in Haiti, said in a statement.
Demonstrators must stop blocking roads, bridges and airports so that vital humanitarian assistance can reach the thousands of people affected by the epidemic, which has killed at least 1,186 people, he said.
Humanitarian workers said the protests eased a little Friday but that aid agencies were still not working in the northern city of Cap Haitien, where the major violence erupted this week.
"Oxfam was still unable to reach the area where we would like to start work in Cap Haitien," said Louis Bellanger, a New York spokesman for the aid group. "There are still some road blocks and local authorities advised us not to go in."
Stone-throwing youths on Thursday raced through the rubble-strewn streets of fetid camps built for earthquake survivors, as peacekeepers in armored trucks fired tear gas on the crowds in running clashes that lasted several hours.
Sporadic gunfire echoed through the capital as demonstrators blocked roads with burning tires and dumpsters overflowing with rotting garbage.
UN officials have said that the demonstrations are being "orchestrated" ahead of the elections.
"If this situation continues, more and more patients in desperate need of care are likely to die and more and more Haitians awaiting access to preventive care may be overtaken by the epidemic," warned Mulet, who is also the UN secretary general's special representative in Haiti.
UN agencies have made several pleas for an end to the violence which they have said is threatening lives as the epidemic spreads.
"If violence continues, it is the most vulnerable who will pay the price," said Myrta Kaulard, the World Food Programme (WFP) Representative in Haiti.
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.
On Friday, hundreds in the suburb of Petionville lined up from the early morning to obtain an all-important national identification card needed to vote in the November 28 poll.
"Many people don't vote because they don't know who the candidates are. For me it's important. The country needs a president, deputies, senators," said Venante Pierre, who joined the 200-strong queue before sunrise.
Thousands lost all identification papers in January's devastating earthquake, which killed some 250,000 people and razed the capital.
Some, like 28-year-old Nadege Lavenal, have visited the ID stations over and over again only to find the necessary documents were unavailable. Friday was the fourth time Lavenal attempted to get the card -- "each time they don't have them. And without it I can't even go to the bank," she said.
More than 19,600 Haitians have been infected by cholera, a diarrhea-causing illness, since the outbreak began last month.
Three cases have been found in the neighboring Dominican Republic, including a newborn baby girl and her grandmother in the capital Santo Domingo -- who have never been to Haiti.
Two cases have appeared in the southern US state of Florida -- both from people who traveled from Haiti.
Michael Jenner, a 25-year-old nurse from North Carolina volunteering at a medical center in the northwest department, said that the peacekeepers were doing their best to contain the epidemic.
"If it weren't for the UN now, there would be no health care around here. People need to figure out that the police and the soldiers are trying to help before their ignorance kills them," he told AFP.
In Haiti -- the poorest country in the Americas even before the January quake ravaged the capital and killed 250,000 people -- the UN peacekeepers are a highly visible presence and a target of widespread frustration.