Pro-Preval demonstrations erupt in Haiti

Unrest builds as thousands fill streets, demand ex-president be declared election winner

February 14, 2006|By TIM COLLIE | TIM COLLIE,SOUTH FLORIDA SUN-SENTINEL

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti -- Tens of thousands of angry protesters filled the streets of the capital yesterday, setting fire to barricades, storming a luxury hotel and demanding that front-runner Rene Preval be declared the winner of last week's presidential election.

At least two people were killed and several injured in gunfire in the Tabarre neighborhood near the international airport. Witnesses interviewed on Haitian radio blamed United Nation peacekeepers, but a U.N. spokesman denied that troops had fired on protesters.

Elsewhere around the capital, demonstrations remained peaceful even as singing and dancing Haitians shut down businesses and tied up traffic throughout the city. By nightfall, flaming barricades dotted the city, but most traffic was allowed safe passage.

Yesterday's upheavals came two days after the much-promised final results were expected by many in Haiti to show that Preval, a former president popular among the country's desperate poor, won the election with a simple majority.

Instead, the results that dribbled out from the country's election council showed Preval's lead shrinking to less than 50 percent, requiring a runoff. A poorly managed election, allegations of fraud by two council members and computer glitches fed the growing anger of Haiti's poor masses.

With 90 percent of the vote counted, Preval was leading a 33-man field with 48.7 percent, elections officials said yesterday. His nearest opponent, former President Leslie F. Manigat, had 11.8 percent. Preval needs 50 percent plus one vote to avoid a runoff. Of the 2.2 million ballots cast, about 125,000 have been declared invalid because of irregularities.

Interim Prime Minister Gerard Latortue and other officials appealed for calm in a national radio broadcast: "I'm asking you to go home. ... The transitional government is not stealing your vote."

But Preval, in remarks to the Associated Press, said he has "questions about the electoral process. We want to see how we can save the process." He spoke after he was flown from his home in rural Haiti to the capital for a series of meetings with leading diplomats and the prime minister.

The size of the demonstrations reminded many of 1990, when Preval's mentor, ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, rose from a charismatic slum preacher to become the country's first democratically elected president. But yesterday, in an act that sent shivers through some elite bastions, thousands of protesters stormed the Hotel Montana, an enclave that houses international reporters, diplomats and the election council's press center.

Massing at the heavy steel gates for hours, the crowd finally surged through and paraded through halls where rooms cost roughly half the average Haitian's annual salary of about $350.

Tim Collie writes for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel.

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