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Looting, violence envelop Haiti capital

President's plea ignored in rage over food prices

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Jonathan M. Katz
Associated Press / April 10, 2008

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti - A desperate appeal from President Rene Preval yesterday failed to restore order to Haiti's shattered capital, and bands of looters sacked stores, warehouses, and government offices.

Gunfire rang out from the wealthy suburbs in the hills to the starving slums below as 9,000 UN peacekeepers were unable to halt a frenzy of looting and violence that has grown out of protests over rising food prices.

Many of the protesters are demanding the resignation Preval, who is backed by the US government, and on Tuesday UN peacekeepers had to fire rubber bullets and tear gas to drive away a mob that tried to storm his palace.

He delivered his first public comments yesterday, nearly a week into the protests. With his job on the line, Preval urged Congress to cut taxes on imported food and appealed to the rioters to go home.

"The solution is not to go around destroying stores," he said. "I'm giving you orders to stop."

But gunfire rang out around the palace after the speech, as peacekeepers tried to drive away people looting surrounding stores.

The streets remained in the control of bands of young men carrying sticks and rocks, who set up roadblocks of burning tires and stopped passing cars. Businesses were closed and most people locked themselves indoors.

Sustained gunfire was heard throughout Petionville, where many diplomats and foreigners live, and in Martissant, a slum west of downtown. On the road to the airport, groups of protesters surrounded makeshift barricades and threw rocks at passing cars.

Looters could be seen sacking a supermarket and several gas station minimarts. Radio stations reported looters also sacked a government rice warehouse outside Port-au-Prince and the office of Petionville's mayor.

Protests were also reported yesterday in two northern towns, St. Marc and Cap-Haitien.

Haiti is particularly affected by food prices, which have risen 40 percent on average globally since mid-2007. With 80 percent of its population struggling to survive on less than $2 a day, the rising prices pose a real threat to its fragile democracy.

Preval acknowledged the threat in his address, saying Haiti's predicament comes partly from its dependence on imported rice that has weakened national production. He said the rising prices are a global phenomenon, and said the tax cut would help lessen the pain.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon pledged yesterday that his organization "will continue to support the Haitian authorities to bring emergency relief assistance to the Haitian people and to maintain public order," spokeswoman Marie Okabe said. He also called on donors to provide emergency aid.

UN police spokesman Fred Blaise said several people have been injured by bullets and rocks in the capital, including a Haitian police officer. Five people have been killed in the southern city of Les Cayes, where protesters tried to burn down the UN compound last week.

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