Protesters vow to derail Haiti presidential vote; election offices burned

PORT-AU-PRINCE (Reuters) - Stone-throwing protesters took to the streets of Haiti’s capital on Monday to demand the suspension of a Jan. 24 presidential election over alleged irregularities, while in provincial areas unknown attackers burned several electoral offices.

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Haiti is due to hold a run-off vote backed by international donors on Sunday, but tensions have risen since opposition candidate Jude Celestin said last week he would withdraw, on grounds that electoral authorities favored the ruling party.

Swiss-trained engineer Celestin, 53, came second in an October first round in the poor Caribbean nation, beaten by banana exporter Jovenel Moise, 47, the ruling party candidate.

Accompanied by a man playing trumpet, the several thousand-strong crowd grew angrier as it moved from poor neighborhoods into downtown Port-au-Prince. Some protesters burned vehicles, threw rocks and attacked a petrol-pump.

“If I have to take up weapons I will do that. I have done it in the past,” said slum resident Jaques Madiou, 40, who said he had taken up arms after former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a leftist ex-priest, was forced from power in 2004.

Elections and transfers of power in Haiti have long been plagued by instability, and international observers said October’s vote was relatively smooth. However, several of the 54 candidates alleged fraud in favor of Moise.

On Monday, Moise called on voters to participate in the second round, telling reporters that the election was a “turning point” that would strengthen Haiti’s democracy.

The protesters demanded the creation of an interim government and fresh elections to be held after President Michel Martelly leaves office in February. The opposition groups included the Platform Pitit Desalin and supporters of Celestin.

“We declare this week the rebellion week to block the Jan. 24 election. We will protest in front of each voting booth and voting center,” said Assad Volcy, deputy secretary general for Pitit Desalin.

“When Martelly leaves on Feb. 7 we want a provisional government to evaluate the electoral process and complete it,” he said.

In the north of the country, unknown assailants burned four offices on Sunday night belonging to the electoral council, blamed by many critics for irregularities in the October vote. Four members of the electoral council resigned recently.

The Organization of American States said it deplored the violence against the election council. The council vowed to go ahead with the vote on Sunday.

Editing by Frank Jack Daniel and Lisa Shumaker