News from Haiti

Monday, February 13, 2006

1 dead in Haiti as vote count protests mount; luxury hotel stormed

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti -- Tens of thousands of angry protesters erected flaming barricades, stormed a luxury hotel and marched through the streets Monday, protesting presidential election returns showing that frontrunner Rene Preval may face a runoff election.

At least one supporter of Preval was killed, the Associated Press reported. News service journalists saw the body of a man, wearing a blood-soaked T-shirt bearing an image of Preval, in the street in the Tabarre neighborhood.

Witnesses told the news service that U.N. peacekeepers opened fire on the crowd, but a U.N. spokesman denied that. Witnesses said Jordanian U.N. peacekeepers opened fire, killing two and wounding four.

David Wimhurst, a U.N. spokesman in Haiti, denied in a phone interview with the AP that peacekeepers opened fire.

"There's apparently two people killed in Tabarre, but it wasn't U.N. troops who killed them. We fired two warning shots in the air and then there was gunfire from unidentified parties -- it wasn't us. We haven't shot anyone.

"The protesters appear to be leaving the Montana now, so that may be settled. We have demonstrations going on around the city, some generalized vandalism, cars damaged, that sort of thing, but that's it. These are largely peaceful demonstrations.

"What we're all hoping for is that the elections council will soon post the final results, so we can move on from this. But we don't know when that's going to happen."

Elsewhere around the capital, demonstrations seemed peaceful even as protesters shut down businesses and tied up traffic throughout the city. By noon, Port-au-Prince was paralyzed, and there was no word from election supervisors about the latest vote counts.

Thousands of protesters stormed the Hotel Montana, where the country's election council had its press center, breaking through a gate and spilling into the luxury resort's garden, lobby and hallways. South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu, in Haiti for a previously scheduled visit, attempted to disperse the crowd from a balcony at the hotel, but many among the protesters had no idea who he was.

"If you shoot at us, we're going to burn all this down,'' the crowd chanted as U.N. gunships hovered overhead. Many believed that members of the country's election council were staying at the hotel and demanded to speak to the council's director general, Jacques Bernard.

Council members were nowhere to be found, though several appealed on local radio stations for calm.

One of them was Vincent de Herdt, an IFES elections monitor, who told listeners: "All I can say right now is that we have absolutely seen no evidence of fraud anywhere in the country. That's really all i can say. We're paralyzed right now, none of our people can move around the city, so we cannot witness anything.

"I don't really know what these allegations are being based on. We've seen no evidence of fraud. None at all," de Herdt said.

Results posted Sunday showed Preval leading with 49.1 percent of the vote, with some 75 percent of the ballots counted. He was followed by former president Leslie Manigat with 11.7 percent. Preval needed a 50 percent plus one vote to avoid a runoff scheduled for March 19.

"They're trying to steal our vote, and they're not going to do it,'' said Marie Esther Bareau, 24, who said she ran one of the polling centers. She said Preval won 380 out of 400 votes at her site, and that she was sure he had the majority needed to be named president.

"This whole election was a sham, and none of us who worked in the election were even paid,'' added Bareau. "I want our president, and I want my money."

In front of her, dozens of waiters, cooks and other hotel staff stood in a line alongside U.N. peacekeepers, trying to keep the throng from entering the hotel lobby and advancing onto its upper floors.

At many intersections throughout the city, huge mounds of garbage were used to barricade streets, guarded by hundreds of Preval supporters who would only let other sympathizers pass through.

On John Brown Boulevard, the narrow mountain road that leads to the middle-class enclave of Petionville, dozens of U.N. troops faced off against thousands of protesters.

But the U.N. commander eased the situation by walking alone under a hail of rocks toward the angry street youths. He then hugged them, one by one, saying, "You're black, I'm black -- let's not do this."

The youths then let motorists pass through.

Elsewhere, angry young men were pointing at light-skinned Haitians yelling, "Baker, Baker," a reference to Charles Henri Baker, a wealthy white industrialist who placed third in presidential polling after leading the civic movement that helped depose Aristide two years ago.

"We've had it, quite frankly, and if we don't have any results soon, this whole country is coming down,'' said Jean Dorsanvil, 40, a mechanic, as he piled boulders onto a barricade in Petionville.