Port-au-Prince burns as election fury takes hold

Protesters question legitimacy of president's chosen candidate.

Violence broke out across Haiti yesterday with the headquarters of the ruling government coalition set on fire after crowds protested against election results widely regarded as fraudulent.

Thousands took to the streets, putting up barricades and setting fires, prompting the outgoing President Rene Preval to call for calm.

The unrest began after the country's election council, perceived to be under the influence of Mr Preval, ruled that populist candidate Michel Martelly had not gained enough votes in the polls to qualify for a second round run-off.

Instead the council declared that Mr Martelly had been beaten into third place by Jude Celestin, the successor chosen by President Preval, who cannot run for a third term under the constitution.

The president urged his rivals to call off the protests in a live radio speech. "This is not how the country is supposed to work," he said. "People are suffering because of all the damage."

After initial clashes the police in the capital, Port-au-Prince, appeared to have abandoned the streets to large groups of people, many of them armed, chanting: "Hang Preval".

Protests also broke out in Les Cayes, Cap-Haitien and other cities.

UN troops fired shots in the air in an attempt to disperse demonstrators who had gathered outside the Election Council headquarters in the wealthy suburb of Petionville.

However, the soldiers – who have been blamed for a cholera epidemic sweeping the country – were keeping a low profile. Barricades of burning tyres and abandoned vehicles were set up along roads flanked by crumbled remains of buildings from last January's devastating earthquake. Aid workers and foreign diplomats stayed indoors – protected by security guards – and the capital's airport was shut down after a number of airlines cancelled flights to the country.

Even in the hours before the announcement of the results, the general expectation was that the two candidates with the highest backing would be Mr Martelly, a 49-year-old former kompa jazz singer also known as 'Sweet Mickey' and Mirlande Manigat, the 70-year-old wife of a former president.

However the results, announced by a visibly trembling election official at a Port-au-Prince restaurant late on Tuesday, credited Mrs Manigat with 31 per cent of the votes, Mr Celestin with 22 per cent and Mr Martelly with 21.84 per cent.

Groups of youths, some masked, began to appear soon afterwards in locations throughout Port-au-Prince, with police trying to break up the groups with tear gas rounds.

One of the protesters, Jacques Morgeau, said: "They are trying to cheat the people. Celestin spent lots of money trying to buy votes but the people rejected him. Now they are trying to steal the election."

Fellow protester Daniel Ramirez, added: "We now know that they will never let go of power peacefully, so we must fight, that is the only way, we shall fight for as long as it takes, we shall burn the place if we have to, but Martelly must be president." Mr Martelly cancelled a press conference scheduled for Tuesday night on security grounds and refused to make any comments until he had spoken to his advisers.

The 28 November election was plagued by allegations of fraud. Thousands of voters were disenfranchised by confusion on the rolls and there were many reported incidents of ballot-stuffing, violence and intimidation.

Turnout was low, according to the preliminary results, as just over a million people cast accepted ballots out of some 4.7 million registered voters. It is not known how many ballots were thrown out for fraud.

Jose Miguel Insulza, the head of the Organisation of American States which had sent monitors to the polls, urged the candidates and their supporters to remain peaceful: "There is always a process for appealing the results; always other channels. It is essential this is the path which is followed," he said.

The United Nations mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) and a joint Organisation of American States/Caribbean Community election observer mission had given an initial endorsement of the vote, despite acknowledging irregularities. But UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said the malpractice was "more serious than initially thought" and called on Haiti's leadership and election candidates to negotiate a "Haitian solution" to avert violence.

The US also expressed its concern at the "inconsistent" presidential election results, while urging calm from the public.

A statement issued by the embassy said: "The United States, together with Haiti's international community partners, stands ready to support efforts to thoroughly review irregularities in support of electoral results that are consistent with the will of the Haitian people expressed in their votes." Mr Celestin's poll showing, the statement added, was "inconsistent with the published results of the National Election Observation Council (CNO) election-day observations by official US observers and vote counts observed around the country by numerous domestic and international observers."

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