US senator calls for Haiti aid freeze

Thick black dust and the smell of burning tires hung over Haiti on Friday as a leading US senator called for an aid freeze and a travel ban to force a fair presidential election result, the Agence France Presse reports.

Three days of violent protests triggered by the contested results to last month’s polls left five people dead in cities around the impoverished Caribbean country, which is still trying to recover from a devastating earthquake.

A vote review is expected any day and rival presidential candidates were rallying support, but the usually jammed streets of Port-au-Prince were eerily calm and devoid of traffic Friday, with many people apparently too scared to venture out.

Schools and government offices remained closed, and, with the security situation fast deteriorating, those that could scrambled to leave the country on the handful of flights still operating out of the international airport.

A top US senator called for freezing US aid to Haiti’s government and denying travel visas to its top officials to force a fair outcome to the November 28 polls, which will decide a successor to President Rene Preval.

“As if Haiti did not have enough problems, now, once again, those in power there are trying to subvert the will of the people,” said Senator Patrick Leahy, who chairs the senate committee responsible for funding foreign aid.

“The United States must come down squarely in support of the Haitian people?s right to choose their leaders freely and fairly,” he said.

Tuesday’s results have sparked angry declarations from bitter rivals Jude Celestin and popular singer Michel Martelly, who both vowed to use legal means to secure a place in the race to succeed Preval.

The electoral commission promised on Thursday to immediately review results that showed Preval’s handpicked protege Celestin had pipped Martelly by less than 7,000 votes to win a place in next month’s presidential run-off.

That review was still to materialize on Friday amid widespread rumors of backroom deals between the government, the candidates, and the international community.

Colin Granderson, who heads an international election monitoring mission that validated the elections, told AFP the election commission was preparing final arrangements to recount the tally sheets and could do it on Saturday.

The UN Security Council on Friday expressed “deep concern” over the violence and the fraud allegations but urged rival political groups to use “legal mechanisms” to settle their disputes.

Martelly’s supporters have alleged vote-rigging in a nation with a history of political upheaval, corruption and violence.

But Celestin vowed to defend his right to stand in the January 16 run-off against former first lady Mirlande Maginat, who won the first round vote.

“We believe that the election cannot be contested through destruction. We demand that you remain calm but mobilize across the country, because we will legally defend your votes,” Celestin told supporters.

Initial results showed Manigat, a 70-year-old academic, in the lead with 31.37 percent (336,378 votes), Celestin second with 22.48 percent (241,462 votes) and Martelly third with 21.84 percent (234,617 votes).

The 49-year-old Martelly, popularly known as “Sweet Micky,” said he understood his supporters’ anger at the results and insisted that “protesting without violence is the people’s right.”

More than 1.3 million people are still homeless after the January quake and life is a daily battle for survival amid a deadly cholera outbreak that has also claimed 2,100 lives.

Haiti now appears to be on the brink of the major social unrest that many have feared ever since the earthquake.

Canada closed its embassy and the United States, which has denounced the “inconsistent results,” warned its citizens against all non-essential travel.

If the review upholds the results, Manigat will face off on January 16 against Celestin, a 48-year-old government technocrat plucked from obscurity by Preval earlier this year to be the candidate of the ruling Unity party.

Whoever wins the run-off faces the daunting task of rebuilding a traumatized nation of 10 million that was the poorest in the Americas even before the quake and the cholera outbreak.

Leading US conservative politician Sarah Palin plans to visit Haiti this weekend with an evangelical Christian relief organization, Samaritan’s Purse, despite the days of violence.

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