Preval Backers Claim Victory

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Supporters of Haitian candidate Rene Preval erected flaming roadblocks and stormed a hotel Monday to demand Preval be declared president, and witnesses said U.N. peacekeepers opened fire on one of the crowds, killing at least one person - a charge the U.N. denied.

Protests erupted across the capital Monday as vote counts showed that Preval may have fallen short of the 50 percent needed to win the presidency without a runoff election. The protesters allege the electoral commission is manipulating the vote count to prevent a first-round Preval victory.

Across Port-au-Prince, barricades made of old tires were set ablaze, sending plumes of acrid black smoke into the sky. Protesters let only journalists and Red Cross vehicles pass.

"If they don't give us the final results, we're going to burn this country down!" a man screamed at one of the roadblocks. In the Tabarre neighborhood, Associated Press journalists saw the body of a man on a street, his blood-soaked T-shirt bearing Preval's image. Dozens of witnesses said Jordanian U.N. peacekeepers in a jeep opened fire - a charge the U.N. denied - killing two people and wounding four. The body of the second victim was not seen.
"We were peacefully protesting when the U.N. started shooting. There were a lot of shots. Everybody ran," said Walrick Michel, 22. David Wimhurst, spokesman for the U.N. mission known here by its French acronym MINUSTAH, denied in a telephone interview that peacekeepers opened fire.

"We fired two warning shots into the air and we didn't injure anyone. Some time later, shots were fired by unknown persons in the same area," he said. As for the witnesses' account that peacekeepers shot protesters, he said: "It's absolutely false." Shortly after the incident, people scattered in fear as a peacekeepers' convoy passed by, ducking behind stone mausoleums in a nearby graveyard. They then loaded the body of the shooting victim - identified by the crowd as 19-year-old Junior Cherry - into a pickup truck.
"MINUSTAH killed my brother. MINUSTAH, killed my brother," a woman wailed.

Meanwhile, in the Petionville neighborhood above Port-au-Prince, thousands of screaming protesters converged on the upscale Montana Hotel where election officials have announced results of Tuesday's elections. U.N. peacekeepers kept close watch from a driveway and rooftops, but no violence was reported.

Protesters squeezed into the hotel's lobby and down the steep sloping driveway, waving posters and tree branches and chanting: "Now is the time! Now is the time!" Others dove into the pool, jumped on the chaise lounges and ran up and down the stairs of the hilltop hotel, where rooms cost $200 a night and more. South African Nobel Peace Prize laureate Desmond Tutu, who had appealed for calm at church services Sunday, was seen on a balcony surveying the crowd as helicopters landed on the roof to evacuate people. At one point, the cleric went down to the lobby to urge the protesters to stay peaceful.

Blue-helmeted U.N. peacekeepers controlled access to a separate part of the hotel that was being used as an election center. The doors to the election center were chained and there was no one inside.

"For now, the security situation is peaceful," said a German U.N. peacekeeper who declined to give his name. "It's out of control, because you can't control so many people, but so far there are no reports of violence here." Not long afterward, the crowd began to file out of the hotel.

The leaders of Haiti's interim government met with the ambassadors from the United States, France, Canada and Brazil and U.N. special ambassador Juan Gabriel Valdes to discuss the situation, said Michel Brunache, chief of staff of interim President Boniface Alexandre.

They planned to meet with Preval later to urge him to appeal to his supporters for patience and calm, Brunache said.
But as Preval arrived in the capital aboard a U.N. Helicopter, he declined to make any statement. Asked if he had a message for his supporters, he said "Not now," and kept walking.

With about 90 percent of the vote counted, Preval was leading with 48.7 percent of the vote, Haiti's electoral council said on its Web site. His nearest opponent was Leslie Manigat, another former president, who had 11.8 percent.

But of the 2.2 million ballots cast, about 125,000 ballots have been declared invalid because of irregularities, raising suspicion among Preval supporters that polling officials were trying to steal the election. Another 4 percent of the ballots were blank but were still added into the total, making it harder for Preval to obtain the 50 percent plus one vote needed.

Early Monday, Preval supporters blew horns and pounded drums outside the electoral center calling Jacques Bernard, director-general of the nine-member electoral council, a thief.

"He doesn't know how to count!" they chanted as police held them off with rifles and shotguns. Bernard denied accusations that the council voided many votes for Preval. Patrick Fequiere, who is also on the nine-member electoral council, said on local radio that Bernard was releasing results without notifying other council members, who did not know where Bernard was obtaining his information.
And Pierre Richard Duchemin, another council member, said he was being denied access to the tabulation process. "According to me, there's a certain level of manipulation," Duchemin said, adding that "there is an effort to stop people from asking questions."

The elections will replace an interim government installed after former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide was ousted in a bloody rebellion two years ago. A popularly elected government with a clear mandate from the voters was seen as crucial to avoiding a political and economic meltdown in the Western Hemisphere's poorest nation where gangs have gone on kidnapping sprees and factories have closed for lack of security in the wake of Aristide's ouster.

Jean-Henoc Faroul, president of an electoral district with 400,000 voters northeast of the capital, accused the electoral commission of trying to force a runoff, saying ballot tally sheets from Preval strongholds have vanished. "The electoral council is trying to do what it can to diminish the percentage of Preval so it goes to a second round," said Faroul, who openly supports Preval's candidacy.

Wimhurst confirmed that tally sheets with vote results have been found dumped in the garbage, but said the sheets might have been mishandled by election workers and it was not necessarily evidence of fraud.

(Associated Press Writer Andrew Selsky contributed to this report).

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