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Updated: November 17, 2010 14:08 IST

Haiti president appeals for calm in cholera riots

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Haitian President Rene Preval, smiles following a joint news conference with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, at the State Department in Washington. File photo: AP.
Haitian President Rene Preval, smiles following a joint news conference with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, at the State Department in Washington. File photo: AP.

Haiti’s president appealed for calm amid fears that riots aimed at U.N. peacekeepers over a cholera epidemic could spread to the capital on Wednesday, saying the violence has hurt efforts to fight the disease.

In a national address after health officials announced that the death toll from cholera had risen above 1,000, President Rene Preval said barricades were keeping people from getting needed care and admonished protesters that looting would not help stem the epidemic.

The U.N. cancelled flights carrying three tons of soap along with other medical supplies and personnel to Cap—Haitien because of violence in Haiti’s north, the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said. Flights were also cancelled to Port—de—Paix.

U.N. World Food Programme warehouse looted

Oxfam suspended water chlorination projects and the World Health Organization halted training of medical staff, the U.N. humanitarian office added in its news release. A U.N. World Food Programme warehouse was looted and burnt.

The capital, Port—au—Prince, was calm on Tuesday but there were worries that protests could erupt in the city, which was devastated by last January’s earthquake.

The Haitian government sent top officials to the north Tuesday in hopes of quelling the unrest. Haiti’s police chief, the health minister and other Cabinet officials headed to Cap—Haitien, the country’s second largest city, where protesters erected barricades of flaming tires and other debris and clashed with U.N. troops.

At least two demonstrators had died, one of them shot by a member of the multinational peacekeeping force that has been trying to keep order since 2004.

Police station burnt

During a second day of rioting, local reporters said a police station was burnt in Cap—Haitien and rocks were thrown at peacekeeping bases.

U.N. peacekeepers found themselves in the difficult job of quelling unrest aimed at them. The violence has combined some Haitians’ long—standing resentment of the 12,000—member U.N. military mission with the internationally shared suspicion that a U.N. base could have been a source of the infection.

U.N. officials deny responsibility. The mission charged on Tuesday that the protests were politically motivated to affect or disrupt national elections scheduled for November 28.

The cholera outbreak that began last month has brought increased misery to the entire country, still struggling with the aftermath of the earthquake. But anger has been particularly acute in the north, where the infection is newer, health care sparse and people have died at more than twice the rate of the central region where the epidemic was first noticed.

Death toll 1,034

The health ministry said on Tuesday that the official death toll hit 1,034 as of Sunday. Figures are released following two days of review.

Aid workers say the government’s numbers may understate the epidemic. While the health ministry says more than 16,700 people have been hospitalized nationwide, Doctors Without Borders says its clinics alone have treated at least 16,500.

Health experts have called for an independent investigation into whether Nepalese peacekeepers introduced the South Asian strain of cholera to Haiti, where no case of cholera had ever been documented before late October.

Cholera is transmitted by feces and can be all but prevented if people have access to safe drinking water and regularly wash their hands.

But sanitary conditions don’t exist in much of Haiti, and the disease has spread across the countryside and to nearly all the country’s major population centres, including Port—au—Prince. There are concerns it could eventually sicken hundreds of thousands of people.

As the barricades burned, the disease continued spreading across Haiti and potentially the island of Hispaniola. Authorities in the neighbouring Dominican Republic reported their country’s first confirmed case of cholera in Higuey, near the tourist mecca of Punta Cana.

The man was a Haitian citizen who had recently returned from a 12—day vacation in Haiti. The news alarmed Dominicans, but the patient was in a hospital and in stable condition, officials said. No locally originated cholera cases have been reported.

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