20/11/2010 12:45

ANTI-UN UNREST SPREADS TO HAITI CAPITAL

Gangs of angry Haitian youths trawled Port-au-Prince on Thursday as violence aimed at UN peacekeepers blamed for the cholera crisis spread to the capital after deadly rioting in the north.

Organisers had urged people to vent their anger at the UN and the Haitian authorities in a demonstration at a main square by the presidential palace, but what transpired was more like urban guerrilla warfare.

Tear gas filled the air and sporadic gunfire could be heard as gangs took to the rubble-strewn streets of the quake-ravaged capital, blocking roads with barricades of burning tires and dumpsters full of rotten garbage.

Several hundred rock-throwing youths attacked an open-top lorry carrying members of MINUSTAH, the under fire UN force accused by some of being the source of a cholera outbreak that has now killed more than 1,100 people.

The international peacekeepers pointed their guns at the youths and one briefly fell out of the vehicle under a volley of stones before managing to climb back in without coming to harm.

Young protesters, many of them in their teens, 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.’

Three Haitians have been killed in riots this week in the northern city of Cap-Haitien, where a police station was set ablaze and thousands of protesters threatened to storm a UN compound.

The powder keg situation stems from claims the cholera emanated from septic tanks at a base for Nepalese 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.

Less than 10 days before polls to choose Preval‘s successor, political forces are being blamed for whipping up tensions. 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 turned the capital to rubble and killed 250,000 people -- there is huge discontent and MINUSTAH is a highly visible presence and an easy target.

”Haitian leaders have forgotten the people,” Ladiou Novembre, a 38-year-old secondary school teacher who planned to join the demonstrations, told AFP.

”There is no infrastructure, no education, cholera is ravaging the people and the president says nothing. We are demonstrating against the authorities and MINUSTAH, who are both doing nothing,” November said.

”MINUSTAH should be keeping peace in the country, but instead they are making things worse. MINUSTAH is killing Haitians.”

The unrest is especially worrying as the UN peacekeepers are scheduled to help organise and preside over the elections.

Aid workers say the violence in the north is impeding 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 in the impoverished Caribbean nation for years to come.

”The Haitian population has no pre-existing immunity to cholera, and environmental conditions in Haiti are favourable for its continued spread,” the US-based Centres for Disease Control said in a progress report.

More than 1,100 people have died from the diarrhoea-causing illness since it emerged there last month, with more than 18,000 people infected.

One isolated cholera case has been found in the neighbouring Dominican Republic and a second in the US state of Florida -- both from people believed to have travelled from Haiti. Dominican authorities are investigating a possible second case there.

Health officials fear cholera could spread like wildfire if it infiltrates Haiti‘s squalid relocation camps around the capital where hundreds of thousands of quake refugees live in cramped and unsanitary conditions.

The vast majority of the deaths and the infections so far have been in the center and the north of the country.

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