AFP - Violent protests erupted in Haiti over a cholera epidemic that claimed nearly 1,000 lives, sparking clashes with UN peacekeepers that left at least two men dead, officials said.
The UN Mission in Haiti issued a statement late Monday linking the protests to November 28 presidential elections, and appealed to Haitians not to allow themselves to be manipulated by "the enemies of stability and democracy."
"The way the events unfolded leads to the belief that these incidents were politically motivated, aimed at creating a climate of insecurity ahead of the elections," it said.
The clashes between rock-hurling protesters and UN peacekeepers erupted in Cap-Haitien, the country's second largest city, and in the central town of Hinche, where angry crowds blamed the United Nations for the spiralling cholera epidemic.
In Cap-Haitien, doctors and police said around a dozen people were being treated for bullet wounds, with some in serious condition.
A 20-year-old man was killed outside a UN base in Cap-Haitien's Quartier-Morin during clashes between protesters and peacekeepers who fired tear gas to try to disperse the crowd.
"There was a demonstrator who had a weapon and fired at a soldier, and the soldier returned fire in legitimate self-defense," said Vicenzo Pugliese, a spokesman for the UN mission known by its initials MINUSTAH. "The soldier was not injured."
A local official, Bimps Noel, said the peacekeepers first fired to disperse the crowds, "and then later, I have the impression they fired on a man."
He said the young man was shot in the back, noting that the "UN tanks were hit by stones."
Another young Haitian was killed by gunfire on a street in Cap-Haitien during the clashes, a police source said.
Doctor Yves Jasmin, the top local health official, told AFP around 10 people had been taken to the Justinien hospital, but described the injuries as light. A police source put the number at 14, including two seriously wounded.
"The situation is very difficult, and there is a lot of violence in the city. I am blocked in the city, and I can't get to the hospital," Jasmin said.
Demonstrators set a police station and vehicles inside on fire as they went on the rampage, accusing the government of "leaving the population to die," witnesses told local radio.
The situation remained tense there into the early hours Tuesday.
"Sporadic gunfire was heard in the city, according to witnesses, while groups of looters began sacking a food warehouse belonging to an international organization," a police source told AFP.
The UN mission reaffirmed "its firm commitment to support the National Police of Haiti in the maintenance of order and security in the country to assure the continuation of the electoral process and Haiti's reconstruction."
Protesters vented particular anger at MINUSTAH. A Nepalese contingent that arrived in the country shortly before the cholera epidemic broke out in mid-October is blamed by many as the source of the outbreak.
The United Nations is probing claims the outbreak emanated from septic tanks at the camp near the central town of Mirebalais, where the Nepalese are based, but the World Health Organization says finding the source is not the first priority.
Protesters reportedly threw stones at the UN peacekeeping unit in the central town of Hinche, less than 50 kilometers (30 miles) from Mirebalais, during a protest involving some 400 people.
The protests showed the cholera was "an issue obviously of national security," said Nigel Fisher, the UN humanitarian coordinator in Haiti.
Less than a month after Haiti's first cholera outbreak in half a century, the number of confirmed number of fatalities stood at 917 and was rising by more than 50 a day. There have been almost 15,000 infections.
Most deaths have been in central and northern Haiti, with the disease not yet widespread in the capital Port-au-Prince, which was badly damaged in a January quake that killed 250,000 people and left over a million homeless.
Officials fear the cholera epidemic could spread exponentially if it infiltrates squalid relocation camps around the capital where hundreds of thousands of earthquake survivors live in cramped and unsanitary conditions.
Some 200 cholera deaths have been reported in the north and 100 in Cap-Haitien, health officials said. Schools in Cap-Haitien are closed as parents are refusing to send children to class, fearing they may get sick.
A top UN official said there are now cholera cases in every one of Haiti's 10 departments and warned that aid agencies were expecting a significant increase in the number of infections.
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