Price of rice prompts renewed anger in Haiti

PORT-AU-PRINCE Wed Apr 16, 2008 3:25am EDT

1 of 4. Residents argue with an U.N. soldier from Brazil during a food distribution for at least 700 families at the Cite-Soleil slum in Port-au-Prince April 15, 2008,

Credit: Reuters/Eduardo Munoz

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PORT-AU-PRINCE (Reuters) - Sellers and angry customers clashed over the price of rice in Haiti on Tuesday, three days after the government announced a deal to reduce the price by 15 percent after food riots that killed at least five people.

Vendors said customers had expected rice prices to drop immediately after the government announced on Saturday an agreement with importers to cut the cost of a 110-pound (50-kg) sack of rice from $51 to $43.

But vendors were still selling older, higher-priced stocks, angering hungry Haitians and keeping alive simmering tensions over skyrocketing living costs in a nation where most people get by on less than $2 a day.

There were no reports of injuries as a result of the heated confrontations, which in some places involved minor scuffles, but lawmakers called on the government to announce immediately when the price cuts would reach the market to prevent further violence.

"The government and importers have to say without any further delay when exactly the cut in rice prices will be effective," legislator Jean Beauvoir Dorson said on Tuesday as he prepared to attend a session in the Chamber of Deputies, Haiti's lower house of Parliament.

"Should the government fail to do so, we should expect more violent incidents between buyers and vendors," said Dorson, who called the government "irresponsible."

The Senate fired Prime Minister Jacques Edouard Alexis on Saturday after days of unrest over the high cost of living in the impoverished Caribbean nation of nearly 9 million people, where malnutrition is rampant.

International agencies have appealed for emergency funds to help Haiti and other countries hit by food riots. Record oil prices, rising demand in Asia, the use of crops for biofuels and other factors have pushed up food prices across the globe.

Haitians says prices of some staples, such as rice, beans and cooking oil, have doubled in the past few months.

On the same day Alexis was ousted, President Rene Preval unveiled the rice deal. Private importers said they would contribute $3 to the price reduction and the government pledged another $5 to be paid from international donor money.

"Since the president announced that rice prices would be reduced, we have been constantly attacked and cursed by buyers," said Moline Numa, a rice vendor at the Iron Market in downtown Port-au-Prince. "We have been through a real ordeal."

Vendors reported clashes at the Iron Market, the Canape Vert market and other locations where rice is sold.

"A vendor and buyer were about to fight this morning as a result of disputes over rice prices," said Mercilia Molin, a rice and beans vendor, who said she had been repeatedly cursed by buyers over the past 48 hours.

Government officials were not immediately available for comment.

Five people were killed in the early days of the unrest when stone-throwing crowds battled U.N. peacekeepers and Haitian police. Local radio reports on Tuesday said two others were killed in the remote town of Jeremie in the past few days, but officials had not confirmed those deaths.

(Editing by Jim Loney and Cynthia Osterman)

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