Presidential protests erupt in Haiti

At least one killed in demonstrations supporting Préval

By Stevenson Jacobs
Associated Press / February 14, 2006

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PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti -- Supporters of Haitian presidential candidate René Préval erected smoldering roadblocks across the capital and occupied a luxury hotel yesterday. At least one protester was killed, but UN peacekeepers denied witness accounts that they had shot him.

As Port-au-Prince descended into chaos, Préval returned to the capital for the first time since the election Tuesday. He was the clear winner with about 90 percent of the votes counted, but supporters claimed electoral officials were tampering with results to prevent him from getting the majority he needs to avoid a runoff.

Barricades made of tires were ablaze across the capital, sending plumes of acrid black smoke into the sky. Protesters let only journalists and Red Cross vehicles pass.

''If they don't give us the final results, we're going to burn this country down!" a protester screamed.

The election will replace an interim government installed after former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide was ousted in a bloody rebellion two years ago. A popularly elected government with a clear mandate from the voters is seen as crucial to avoiding a political and economic meltdown in the Western Hemisphere's poorest nation. Gangs have gone on kidnapping sprees and factories have closed for lack of security.

Préval arrived in the capital aboard a UN helicopter from his rural home in north Haiti.

''We have questions about the electoral process," he told reporters after meeting with the top UN official in Haiti and ambassadors from the United States, France, Canada, and Brazil. ''We want to see how we can save the process."

Préval also planned to meet with the interim prime minister and president.

Interim Prime Minister Gerard Latortue appealed for calm in a nationally broadcast address. ''People, don't stay in the streets," he said. ''I'm asking you to go home. . . . The transitional government is not stealing your vote."

In the middle-class Tabarre neighborhood, Associated Press journalists saw the body of a man on a street, blood soaking Préval's image emblazoned on his T-shirt. Dozens of witnesses said Jordanian UN peacekeepers in a jeep opened fire, killing two people and wounding four. The body of the second victim was not seen.

''We were peacefully protesting when the UN started shooting. There were a lot of shots. Everybody ran," said Walrick Michel, 22.

UN spokesman David Wimhurst first denied that peacekeepers fired any rounds, then later said they had fired in the air. ''We fired two warning shots into the air, and we didn't injure anyone," he said.

In the Petionville neighborhood in the hills east of Port-au-Prince, thousands of screaming protesters poured into the Montana Hotel, where election officials had been announcing results. Blue-helmeted UN peacekeepers armed with assault rifles looked on from the grounds and the roof. No violence was reported.

Protesters waving Préval campaign posters and tree branches jumped up and down in unison, chanting: ''Now is the time! Now is the time!"

Protesters stretched out on chaise lounges and ran up and down the hotel stairs past rooms costing $200 and more a night.

Visiting Nobel Peace Prize laureate Desmond Tutu came out of his suite to appeal for calm.

UN peacekeepers controlled access to a separate part of the hotel that was being used as an election center.

After several hours, the crowd began to leave the hotel.

''We came looking for someone to give us the real results," said a 30-year-old Préval organizer who identified himself only as ''Sanpeur." ''We made them leave because we don't want disorder."

With about 90 percent of the vote counted, Préval was leading with 48.7 percent, Haiti's electoral council said on its website. His nearest opponent was Leslie Manigat, another former president, who had 11.8 percent.