News from Haiti

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Rene Preval alleges 'gigantic fraud' in Haiti elections

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti, February 14, 2006, 12:28 PM EST (AP)-- Leading presidential candidate Rene Preval said Tuesday that "gross errors and probably gigantic fraud" marred last week's elections, backing the protests of his supporters but urging them to be peaceful, a day after at least one person was killed in violent demonstrations.

Preval, who had just under 49 percent of the vote with most ballots counted, made the comments hours after a U.N. helicopter brought him to the capital from his rural home Monday as supporters accusing election officials of manipulating results stormed a luxury hotel in Port-au-Prince.

"We want the will of the Haiti people to be respected," Preval said at a news conference. He urged supporters to keep up their protests, but to "respect people's belongings" and to be on guard against those who try to foment violence.

"I ask the Haitian people ... to be mature, to be responsible, to be nonviolent," he said, speaking in a calm, measured voice.

Preval, a former protege of ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, enjoys wide support among Haiti's poor majority. It was uncertain, however, whether he would get the 50 percent total needed to win outright and avoid a second round of voting and no new results have been posted for more than 20 hours.

"We have observed there have been gross errors and probably gigantic fraud," Preval told reporters.

He met late Monday with the top U.N. official in Haiti and ambassadors from the United States, France, Canada and Brazil. "We have questions about the electoral process," he said after that meeting. "We want to see how we can save the process."

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. In the two years since Aristide's ouster, gangs have gone on kidnapping sprees and factories have closed for lack of security.

Monday's violence in Port-au-Prince left at least one protester dead as barricades of blazing tires sent plumes of black smoke into the sky.

U.N armored personnel carriers, meanwhile, shoved aside junked cars, old refrigerators and other debris to clear the roadblocks erected by demonstrators who paralyzed the capital on Monday.

In the middle-class Tabarre neighborhood, Associated Press journalists saw a man lying in the street, blood soaking the picture of Preval on his T-shirt. Dozens of witnesses said Jordanian U.N. peacekeepers opened fire from a jeep, killing two people and wounding four.

U.N. spokesman David Wimhurst first denied that peacekeepers fired any rounds, then later said they had fired in the air and that someone else fired shots afterward in the same area.

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

Protesters waving Preval campaign posters and tree branches jumped up and down in unison, chanting: "Now is the time! Now is the time!" Dozens somersaulted fully clothed into the pool -- a rare treat in a country where most people lack running water.

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

Nobel Peace Prize laureate Desmond Tutu, who is visiting Haiti, came out of his suite to appeal for calm. One of his security agents said the South African archbishop had refused to be evacuated by the helicopter plucking guests from the roof.

Communist Cuba accused Washington Tuesday of helping manipulate the results in Haiti's presidential elections.

"What is happening in Haiti shouldn't be surprising," the Communist Party daily Granma said in a front-page editorial. "It isn't the first time that the United States has intervened on a whim over the destiny of this nation, nor is it the first time it has shameless manipulated another country's electoral results to its benefit."

The editorial also praised Preval, calling him a "a man of great prestige who painstaking served the people" and saying Washington doesn't like him because of his previous ties to Aristide, who was deposed in a rebellion two years ago.

With about 90 percent of the vote counted from the Feb. 7 vote, Preval, a former president and Aristide ally, was leading with 48.7 percent of the vote, Haiti's electoral council said on its Web site. His nearest opponent was Leslie Manigat, another former president, who had 11.8 percent.

Manigat's wife, Myrlande, declined to say whether anyone had approached her husband about withdrawing.

"We are not negotiating," she told The Associated Press Tuesday in a telephone interview. "Our position is to wait until the (electoral council) releases the results."

Of the 2.2 million ballots cast, about 125,000 ballots have been declared invalid because of irregularities, raising suspicion among Preval supporters that polling officials were rigging the election.

Another 4 percent of the ballots were blank but were still added into the total, making it harder for Preval to obtain the majority needed to win outright.

Jacques Bernard, director-general of the nine-member electoral council, denied accusations that the council voided many votes for Preval.

Council member Pierre Richard Duchemin said he was being denied access to the tabulation process.

"According to me, there's a certain level of manipulation," Duchemin said, adding that "there is an effort to stop people from asking questions."