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Haitian police break up violent protest at palace

PORT-AU-PRINCE (Reuters) - Haitian police used tear gas and warning shots to disperse protesters calling for President Rene Preval’s resignation on Monday after some demonstrators robbed passersby and tried to crash through barricades around the national palace.

Haiti’s government has come under strong criticism for its response to the January 12 earthquake that killed up to 300,000 people and caused damage estimated at up to 120 percent of the impoverished Caribbean country’s gross domestic product.

About 1,000 demonstrators took to the streets to denounce what they called a plan by Preval to sell the country to foreign powers and remain in power beyond his legal term, allegations that government officials have repeatedly denied.

The protest was called by nearly 40 political parties and other opposition groups. Police reacted when protesters tried to break through a security perimeter around the quake-damaged palace where Preval was holding meetings.

Protesters, some carrying firearms, attacked passersby and robbed them of money, mobile phones, jewelry and other belongings.

“They came up to me and one of them pulled a gun and told me ‘Give me everything you have on you,’” said 21-year-old Jerome Berlanger, who was not part of the protest.

“They took my wallet with my money and my cellular phone and they beat me up,” said Berlanger, in tears and with his clothes torn to rags.

In March, international donors pledged $10 billion over 10 years to help Haiti rebuild.

Projects are to be reviewed and approved by an interim committee co-chaired by Haitian Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive and former U.S. President and U.N. special envoy to Haiti Bill Clinton. The committee is comprised of an equal number of Haitian and foreign members.

Some Haitians see the creation of the commission as a violation of Haiti’s constitution and sovereignty.

“Preval should leave power and he should be arrested,” shouted Maxime Geffrard, one of the demonstrators. “He is a traitor because he wants to sell the country to foreigners.”

Parliament approved a measure on Monday allowing Preval to stay in office until May 14, 2011, if an election cannot be held in time to swear in the next leader on the constitutionally mandated date of February 7, 2011. Opposition parties and other groups opposed the measure.

Preval’s five-year term did not begin until May 14, 2006, because organizational problems delayed the last presidential election and his subsequent inauguration.

He said in a recent statement he would still leave on February 7, 2011, if elections are held at the end of this year. But if not, he would complete his term that ends on May 14, 2011.

Editing by Jane Sutton and John O’Callaghan