Preval supporters protest Haiti election results

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti - Protesters paralyzed the capital with burning barricades and stormed a luxury hotel to demand results from Haiti's nearly week-old election as ex-President Rene Preval fell further below the 50 per cent needed to win the presidency.

Witnesses said UN peacekeepers fired into a crowd of protesters in Tabarre, just north of Port-au-Prince, killing at least two people, but a UN spokesman said the troops only shot into the air.

The peaceful atmosphere that surrounded last Tuesday's balloting, the first since Jean-Bertrand Aristide was ousted by an armed revolt two years ago, began to unravel six days later amid charges that election officials were tampering with results to prevent Preval from taking a first-round victory.

"No vote will be stolen," interim Prime Minister Gerard Latortue told Haitians in a television address following a day of unrest. "We ask everyone to go back home, to stay calm and the results will be published."

Like Aristide, Preval is viewed as a champion of the Caribbean country's poor masses, most of whom live on US$1 a day, but he is distrusted by the small and wealthy elite that helped push Aristide from office on February 29, 2004.

In Tabarre, Jordanian troops started shooting after protesters refused to let them pass a barricade, according to eyewitnesses. "They got angry. They opened fire at the crowd and two people were killed," said Carl Gregoire.

UN spokesman David Wimhurst said peacekeepers fired two warning rounds into the air. "They did not injure anybody. Later, shots were fired by unidentified individuals in the same area," he said. "I can assure you no individuals were wounded by UN peacekeepers."

Across the chaotic capital, traffic ground to a halt, schools shut down and the UN told its civilian employees to stay home. Demonstrators piled wrecked cars and tree branches in the streets after the latest results.

With 90 per cent of the vote counted, the Provisional Electoral Council said Preval had 48.7 per cent.

Flaming barricades of old tyres blocked streets and black smoke rose from the area of the airport, the seaport and a half dozen other locations in the sprawling city.

Hundreds of protesters, dancing and chanting "Preval is President!" smashed through the steel gates of the luxury Montana Hotel and swarmed through the complex. Most of the foreign press and some election observers are staying at the hotel.

"We have voted. We will not vote again. Preval is president," said Michael Jean, accusing election officials of manipulating the vote count. "Give us the results."

Facing grim UN police in blue helmets, the protesters shouted "if you shoot, we will burn the hotel."

South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the 1984 Nobel peace laureate, appeared on a balcony, gesturing to the crowd to calm down.

Waving tree branches and twigs with three leaves representing Preval's political coalition, known as "Lespwa," or "The Hope," protesters stormed through the hotel lobby and along corridors, banging on doors. Hundreds gathered on the pool deck and dozens jumped into the pool.

When initial results were announced several days ago, Preval held 61 per cent of the vote, comfortably over the majority needed to avoid a runoff on March 19.

The results on Monday had another ex-president, Leslie Manigat, at 11.8 per cent and the main candidate for the business elite, industrialist Charles Baker, third at 7.9 per cent.

At least four of the 33 candidates who ran for president said on Monday that Preval had won -- Evans Paul, Turneb Delpe, Dany Toussaint and Marc Bazin.

"I know Preval has won the election with 54.9 per cent," Bazin said in a radio interview. "We don't have the right to ignore the choice of the people."

Preval flew to the capital in a UN helicopter from his mountain hometown of Marmelade. He met officials in the city but did not immediately address his supporters. Preval complained on Sunday that election officials had released conflicting results. Two members of the nine-member electoral council have said the vote was being manipulated.

- REUTERS

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