April 10, 2008 / 4:28 PM / in 10 years

Haiti food riots ease but critics demand PM's head

(Adds UN spokeswoman, paragraphs 12-13)

By Jim Loney and Joseph Guyler Delva

PORT-AU-PRINCE, April 10 (Reuters) - Taxis, vendors and shoppers returned to the debris-strewn streets of the Haitian capital on Thursday after the president appealed for an end to food riots, but the government came under fire from opposition politicians for not doing enough.

In a letter signed by 16 of Haiti's 27 senators, the opposition demanded the resignation of Prime Minister Jacques Edouard Alexis after a week of violent demonstrations over the rising cost of living in which at least five people died.

The riots, which began in the south of the poorest country in the Americas and spread to Port-au-Prince on Monday, pitted tear gas- and rubber bullet-firing U.N. peacekeepers against thousands of hungry Haitians enraged over the high price of rice, beans and other food staples.

Barricades of burning tires and wrecked cars that had paralyzed the capital were dismantled, sporadic looting eased and crowds around the National Palace dispersed after President Rene Preval ordered the rioting to stop on Wednesday.

Preval promised to boost national production of food to reduce the Caribbean country's dependence on imports, but many protesters said they wanted action now and were disappointed he had not cut taxes on foodstuffs.

"The proposals of the president, as good as they may be for the future of the country, do not solve the immediate problems of the population," said the letter, signed by Youri Latortue, a nephew of a former prime minister, and members of a host of opposition parties. No one from Preval's Lespwa party signed.

"Too little, too late. That's the feeling that your proposals have provoked. It is obvious that the majority of the people don't believe any more in the capacity of your government to take courageous measures to ease the misery that the population is facing daily," the senators wrote.

Haitians, who mostly live on less than $2 per day and whose country has been haunted by decades of dictatorship, oppression and economic mayhem, remained worried.

'ALL I HAVE'

"This is all I will have today to feed my children," said Banave Suprien, 40, holding up a loaf of sliced bread in a plastic bag that he had bought for eight children -- his own four and another four of a sister killed recently.

High fuel prices, which have made transportation more expensive, rising demand in Asia, the use of farmland and crops for biofuels, a long drought in Australia and speculation on futures markets have combined to push up food prices worldwide. There have been outbreaks of unrest in several poor countries.

Shortly after midnight, three U.N. peacekeepers from Sri Lanka were wounded by gunfire while on patrol in Port-au-Prince, said Sophie Boutaud-de-la-Combe, a U.N. spokeswoman in Haiti. The peacekeepers did not return fire because they could not identify a target, she said, and their wounds were not serious.

In addition, Jordanian peacekeepers were sent to reinforce a U.N. base in Carrefour, near the capital, in the morning after a hostile crowd threatened it, she said. The Jordanians helped to evacuate employees from the base and fired rubber bullets in the air to deter the crowd.

Otherwise, Preval's appeal for an end to the mayhem was followed by an uneasy calm in the rock- and glass-strewn streets of Port-au-Prince, a sprawling and chaotic city of uncertain millions.

Colorful pick-up truck "tap-tap" taxis circulated again.

Street vendors, who had disappeared while demonstrators hurled rocks at U.N. peacekeepers and Haitian police, returned to curbsides to sell fried plantains and pork, and shopkeepers opened stalls in the main market to sell oranges and papayas.

U.N. peacekeepers rolled up barbed wire they had placed around the opulent National Palace when they had to fend off thousands of protesters trying to storm Preval's office.

The U.N. troops also took off their blue helmets as they sat casually in armored personnel carriers lining major roads and intersections. Security remained heavy.

Some demonstrators warned protests could break out again.

"I think that Alexis should resign. We Haitians cannot feed our children. We are living like animals and he is not solving the problems," said shoemaker Jonas Glezil, 30.

"We don't ask Preval to resign but are waiting to see what he is going to do. If he doesn't act there could be trouble in the future." (Writing by Michael Christie; Editing Tom Brown and Eric Beech) (For more stories on global food price rises, please see here)




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