Hundreds of angry Haitians, furious with the handling of the devastating cholera epidemic in the country, clashed with UN peacekeepers in Port-au-Prince as violence spread to the capital on Thursday.
AFP - Hundreds of Haitians clashed with UN troops they blamed for a worsening cholera outbreak, as pre-election violence spread to the capital on Thursday after days of deadly rioting in the north.
Stone-throwing youths raced through the rubble-strewn streets of fetid camps built for earthquake survivors as UN peacekeepers in armoured trucks fired tear gas on the crowds in running clashes that lasted several hours.
Sporadic gunfire echoed through the quake-ravaged streets of the capital as demonstrators blocked roads with burning tires and dumpsters overflowing with rotting garbage.
"The UN came here to kill us, to poison us," shouted Alexis Clerius, a 40-year-old farmer, as he erected a barricade in the main Champ de Mars square.
Organizers had urged people to vent their anger at the United Nations and Haitian authorities over the cholera outbreak, which has killed more than 1,100 people since it began in late October.
The powder keg situation stems from claims the cholera emanated from septic tanks at a base for Nepalese UN peacekeepers in central Haiti, leaking into the Artibonite River, where locals drink, wash clothes and bathe.
The UN says it tested some of the Nepalese and found no trace of cholera, while health officials say it is impossible to know and the focus must be on containing the epidemic and not divining its source.
President Rene Preval has pleaded for calm and denounced unnamed groups for taking advantage of the cholera to stir things up ahead of November 28 national elections.
Political tensions were running high less than 10 days before the vote to choose Preval's successor. The UN peacekeeping force MINUSTAH has warned people not to be manipulated by "enemies of stability and democracy."
But in the poorest country in the Americas - even before the January earthquake shook the capital to rubble and killed 250,000 people - MINUSTAH is a highly visible presence and a target of widespread frustration.
"Haitian leaders have forgotten the people," said Ladiou Novembre, a 38-year-old secondary school teacher who joined the scattered demonstrations.
"There is no infrastructure, no education. Cholera is ravaging the people and the president says nothing. MINUSTAH should be keeping peace in the country, but instead they make things worse. MINUSTAH is killing Haitians."
Hundreds of rock-throwing youths attacked one open-top truck carrying members of the UN force.
The international peacekeepers pointed guns at the youths and one briefly fell out of the vehicle under a volley of stones before managing to climb back in.
Protesters shouted slogans like: "Cholera: It's MINUSTAH who gave it to us!" and "MINUSTAH, Go home!" One placard read: "MINUSTAH is spreading shit in the street."
Violence has spread from the north, where three Haitians were killed in riots earlier this week in Cap-Haitien. A police station in the second city was set ablaze and thousands of protesters threatened to storm a UN compound.
The unrest is especially worrying as the UN peacekeepers are scheduled to help organize and preside over the elections.
Aid workers say the violence in the north is hampering efforts to treat cholera victims and stop the spread of the disease, which officials warn could kill 10,000 people over the next 12 months if it continues unabated.
US health experts warned on Thursday that the epidemic was unpredictable and repeated outbreaks could wreak havoc for years to come.
"The Haitian population has no preexisting immunity to cholera, and environmental conditions in Haiti are favorable for its continued spread," the the US-based Centers for Disease Control said in a progress report.
More than 18,000 people have been infected by the diarrhea-causing illness since the outbreak began last month.
One isolated case has been found in the neighboring Dominican Republic and a second in the US state of Florida -- both from people who traveled from Haiti. Dominican authorities are investigating a possible second case.
Health officials fear cholera could spread like wildfire if it infiltrates squalid relocation camps around the capital where hundreds of thousands of quake refugees live in cramped and unsanitary conditions.
Most deaths have been in central and northern Haiti, with the disease not yet widespread in the capital.
MAEVA BAMBUCK REPORTS FROM PORT-AU-PRINCE FOR FRANCE 24