PORT-AU-PRINCE (Reuters) - An influential U.S. senator on Friday urged President Barack Obama's administration to suspend direct aid to Haiti's government and visas for its top officials until it ensures a fair and democratic outcome to disputed national elections.
Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy made the call as international pressure mounted on outgoing Haitian President Rene Preval's government and Haitian electoral authorities to review the contested results of November 28 elections that have triggered violent protests across the poor Caribbean country.
"As if Haiti did not have enough problems, now, once again, those in power there are trying to subvert the will of the people," Leahy said in a statement.
He chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee's Subcommittee on the State Department and Foreign Operations, which handles the Senate's work in funding U.S. foreign assistance, including aid to Haiti.
The United States, the United Nations and the European Union have publicly expressed concern over irregularities and allegations of fraud in the presidential poll, which is due to go to a deciding run-off in January. They have called for disputes to be resolved through peaceful legal channels.
"The United States must come down squarely in support of the Haitian people's right to choose their leaders freely and fairly," Leahy said. He added that Haiti needs "a legitimate government respected by the Haitian people and recognized by the international community."
"By suspending direct aid to the central government and visas for top officials and their immediate family members, the United States would be sending that message," Leahy added.
Haiti's presidential and legislative elections are being funded and backed by the international community as a step toward hoped-for stability for the Western Hemisphere's poorest state, which is struggling to rebuild after a devastating January earthquake.
Preliminary results from the November 28 vote released on Tuesday by Haiti's Provisional Electoral Council put former first lady Mirlande Manigat and government technocrat and Preval protege Jude Celestin in the second round.
But popular musician Michel Martelly, whom the council placed narrowly third, less than a percentage point behind Celestin, has rejected the results and accused Preval, Celestin and their ruling Inite (Unity) coalition of rigging the vote.
FEARS OF MORE TROUBLE
Since Tuesday, thousands of Martelly supporters and other protesters have taken to the streets in violent unrest that paralyzed the capital Port-au-Prince and several other cities.
At least four people have been killed in the turmoil. Stone-throwing demonstrators have attacked public buildings, police and U.N. peacekeepers in protests that also disrupted humanitarian operations to fight a raging cholera epidemic.
Health experts called for intensive vaccination and more use of antibiotics to step up the fight.
Although political tensions were still running high on Friday, the streets of Port-au-Prince were calmer. Many of the barricades had been cleared, some vehicles reappeared, and street vendors set out their wares. But the airport remained closed and Haitians were fearful of more trouble.
"If there's a good (election) result, things will calm down. If not, this will continue. They need to respect the voice of the people," said Dieune Jorel, 39, an unemployed father of four.
In an attempt to calm the protests, the beleaguered Provisional Electoral Council on Thursday announced it was forming a commission, including foreign observers, to recheck vote tally sheets from the presidential elections.
The special commission was to verify tally sheets of votes cast for the top three contenders.
Former President Bill Clinton, who co-chairs a multinational recovery commission for quake-hit Haiti, said it was important to keep internationally backed reconstruction efforts on track despite the election turmoil.
"It was calmer today, it appears they are going to try to have a (vote) recount procedure which they hope will acquire more support from across the political spectrum," Clinton told reporters in Washington.
"We want the commission to keep working," he added, saying the body would meet on Tuesday in Haiti or Dominican Republic.
Despite a State Department travel warning urging U.S. citizens to avoid nonessential travel to Haiti, former Alaska governor and Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin announced a planned visit to the country this weekend with a Christian charity group, Samaritan's Purse.