Post-election violence engulfs Haitian capital; Ottawa ‘extremely worried’

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti – Haiti’s capital tumbled deeper into chaos Wednesday as rioters furious over disputed election results took out their frustrations using fire, rocks and two-by-fours.

Thousands of demonstrators marauded through Port-au-Prince setting cars ablaze and barricading nearly every road along the way.

Mobs of protesters chucked softball-sized chunks of concrete at soldiers trying to shield UN buildings in the Petionville district. The troops replied swiftly with volleys of tear gas _ chemicals that momentarily brought choking rioters and people living in a nearby tent encampment to their knees.

The crowds repeatedly shouted that their man _presidential candidate Michel (Sweet Micky) Martelly _ was robbed of his rightful chance to enter a runoff vote.

Some protesters even tried to burn down the headquarters of Jude Celestin, a government-backed candidate who has been entered in the January runoff against Mirlande Manigat.

Celestin is a protege of unpopular Haitian President Rene Preval.

Martelly supporters called the results, which left the popular singer on the outside, a sham. One predicted the waves of violence would continue for as long as it takes until the voice of the people is heard.

“If we don’t give Martelly access (to the runoff vote), the whole year is going to be like this _ cracking and breaking,” said Jean-Marie Jude Rodney, outside the wall of the smoldering head office for Celestin’s political party.

“He’s the one we want.”

There were numerous reports of violence in other corners of the Caribbean nation, including Les Cayes, Cap-Haitien and other cities.

The country is already reeling from a deadly cholera outbreak and the aftermath of January’s devastating earthquake.

Rodney, like scores of others who were seething over Tuesday’s results, said he believes the vote was rigged.

“The people are not deciding, they’re demonstrating with anger and rage . . . just like a hurricane,” he said.

The official preliminary results have Manigat in the lead with 31.4 per cent of the vote, followed by Celestin with 22.5 per cent. Martelly has 21.8 per cent, trailing Celestin by about 6,800 votes.

On Wednesday, Preval urged the candidates to call off the protests.

“This is not how the country is supposed to work,” he said in a live radio speech. “People are suffering because of all this damage.”

The president dismissed allegations that fraud invalidated the election results. Instead, he faulted the U.S. Embassy for its criticism of the vote, saying it would be up to the country’s Provisional Electoral Council, known as the CEP, to review the results.

“If there are problems we can sit down and personally discuss it, but the American Embassy is not the CEP,” he said.

Thousands of voters were disenfranchised by confusion during the Nov. 28 election. There were many reported incidents of ballot-stuffing, violence and intimidation confirmed by international observers.

Canada also expressed concern Wednesday over the Haitian voting process.

“We are extremely worried regarding the irregularities that have been witnessed not only by Canadian observers, but also by international observers,” Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon said.

“Our ambassador has raised this with the president himself.”

Cannon also noted that nothing has been done in Haiti to improve the situation.

“That would place Canada in a very difficult position to recognize the outcome of this election.”

Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff slammed the Canadian government for being too slow to react.

“We’ve been saying for two weeks now that the government ought to send a mission to Haiti to evaluate how Canada can help a country devastated by cholera and how Canada can help as we go into the second round of these elections,” Ignatieff said.

“Canada has a worldwide reputation for election monitoring … I can’t understand why the government doesn’t get involved right away.”

An appeals period is open for the next three days, and election observers said a third candidate might be included in a Jan. 16 runoff if the electoral council decides the first-round vote was close enough _ though the constitutionality of such a move would be debatable.

Martelly had said before results were released that he believed he would win, and would not accept a spot in a runoff in which Celestin is present.

Merilus Reynald, a Petionville resident and Martelly supporter, denounced the election results.

“This event is (a) very big problem,” he said, looking around his neighbourhood.

“Every person in the street is afraid.”

American Airlines even halted flights in and out of the Haitian capital because the widespread demonstrations kept airport employees from getting to work Wednesday, a company spokeswoman said.

The pro-Martelly movement believes he should be entered in the runoff against Manigat and Celestin.

Manigat, a 70-year-old law professor, is the wife of former Haitian president Leslie Manigat, who served briefly in the late 1980s after a much-criticized election before being deposed by a coup.

Her supporters include a powerful senator who organized violent protests in his home department ahead of the first round of voting.

Celestin, a virtual unknown before the election, is the candidate of Preval’s Unity party.

He is the head of the state-run construction company whose trucks carted bodies and limited amounts of rubble out of the city after the Jan. 12 quake.

His campaign was the best-funded of the group, but Preval’s inability to jump-start a moribund economy or push forward reconstruction after the massive earthquake drained his support. Many voters said they would accept “anyone but Celestin,” whom they equate with the unpopular Preval.

Rodney described the bald Martelly, whose slogan is “Tet Kale” or “shaved head” in Creole, as an honest man who is not associated with past governments.

“He never participated in any of the dishonesty in the country,” Rodney said.

“The people chose (him), so we can’t humiliate the people who have a right to vote.”

(With files from Mike Blanchfield and Joan Bryden in Ottawa and The Associated Press)

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