After violent clashes in Haiti between protesters and United Nations forces that left several wounded and one civilian dead, UN officials yesterday were endeavouring to discredit claims that the cholera outbreak in the country can be traced to a contingent of peacekeepers recently deployed there from Nepal.
Attempts to blame the arrival of the disease – never before documented in Haiti – on conditions at an encampment of Nepalese peacekeepers in an area on the Artibonite River were described as "misinformation" by UN spokesperson Corinne Momal-Vanian.
The unrest began on Monday and was centred on Haiti's second-biggest city, Cap-Haitien, in the north, which remained mostly sealed off yesterday.
Clashes were reported in towns in the central plateau. The dead man was reportedly shot by UN forces during an exchange in Quartier Morin, near Cap-Haitien. The Haitian Government said last night that the death toll from outbreak had surpassed 1,000.
While demonstrations continued in parts of the north of the country, the UN said they were being contained. "Right now, security forces... seem to have control already of the situation," insisted Vincenzo Pugliese, a spokesman for Minustah, as the UN mission in Haiti is known.
Even before this week, the country's radio waves were speculating that the Nepalese soldiers could be the source of the epidemic which has also put almost 15,000 in already over-stretched hospitals. Some experts fear that unless it is contained quickly the water-borne disease could afflict as many as 200,000 people in Haiti where sanitary conditions are scarce.
In a statement, the UN Mission said the finger-pointing is tied to the presidential elections due at the end of this month. "The way events unfolded suggests that these incidents were politically motivated, aimed at creating a climate of insecurity on the eve of elections. Minustah calls the people to remain vigilant and not be manipulated by enemies of stability and democracy," the mission commanders said.
In Geneva, meanwhile, officials with the World Health Organisation insisted that combating the cholera outbreak in Haiti was more important at the moment than tracing its source. "At some time we will do further investigation but it's not a priority right now," said Fadela Chaib of the WHO.
The victim in Quartier Morin was reportedly shot in the back at a time when UN tanks were being targeted by stone-throwing protesters. The UN said it was investigating the shooting but insisted that the soldier who fired the shot had acted in self-defence.
Suspicions were directed at the Nepalese after reporters from the Associated Press went to the area where they are deployed and wrote of "foul-smelling waste" trickling towards the river from their camp.
There are cases of cholera in Nepal and the soldiers arrived in Haiti one week before the first cases were reported there.
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have said, moreover, that the strain of cholera now raging through Haiti is one previously seen in South Asia. There have been fears that as the cholera spreads pressure will grow for a delay in the elections on 28 November. However, for now that seems unlikely.
"We cannot postpone the election because of the cholera," insisted one of the candidates, Leslie Voltaire. "You don't know, if you postpone the election by a month or two, the cholera may be worse than it is today."
That emotions are running high in Haiti will surprise no one. The country suffered terribly with January's devastating earthquake. But beyond that, Haitians have often harboured resentment towards outsiders who they believe have brought them additional woe.
Thus, for example, another presidential candidate, Garaudy Laguerre, seemed deliberately to stir popular anger over the cholera outbreak at a recent rally in Miami, where there is a large number of Haitians eligible to vote. "Too often, Haitians die without reasons and without consequences. This time, there will be consequences," he said, vowing to open an investigation into the source of the outbreak if elected.
According to the Nepalese, there have been no cases of cholera in their camp and commanders in Kathmandu denied yesterday there was any link between their soldiers and the outbreak.