Haiti protests carry on despite fuel hike U-turn; flights canceled

(Reuters) - Haitian leaders pleaded for calm on Saturday as violent protests over fuel price increases entered a second day and U.S. airlines canceled flights to the Caribbean nation.

Prime minister Jack Guy Lafontant listends to President Jovenel Moise's speech during Lafontant's presentation in the National Palace of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, February 24, 2017. REUTERS/Andres Martinez Casares

Prime Minister Jack Guy Lafontant announced the temporary suspension of double-digit government hikes to prices for gasoline, diesel and kerosene on Saturday afternoon - just a day after they were announced.

But as local television footage showed, the government’s decision to back down did not keep angry residents from taking to the streets. Some demonstrators erected flaming roadblocks, while others attacked hotels and businesses.

“The poor people want to be able to eat,” one masked protester told Reuters TV as a car blazed behind him. “I want to tell (President) Jovenel (Moïse) that Haiti is not for him and his family. Haiti is for every Haitian. He needs to leave the country and leave the country to us so we can live.”

In a statement, Lafontant said the government strongly condemns the acts of violence and vandalism.

U.S. carriers American Airlines AAL.O, JetBlue JBLU.O and Spirit Airlines SAVE.N announced flight cancellations Saturday to the capital Port-au-Prince citing civil unrest.

“Due to concerns over safety from unrest in the area, Spirit Airlines felt it necessary to temporarily suspend service to Port-au-Prince, Haiti Saturday,” the airline said in a statement. “We apologize for the inconvenience this has caused, but the safety of our guests and crew is paramount.”

A spokesman for the airline said it was not yet clear when flights would resume.

The U.S. Embassy in Haiti advised personnel and Americans in the country to shelter in place.

The U.S. State Department said separately that it was aware of vandalism at a Best Western hotel, where media reports said Americans were staying, and at an American Airlines office in downtown Port-au-Prince.

“At this time, we have not received any reports of U.S. citizens injured in the incidents,” the State Department said in a statement.

On Friday, Haiti’s Commerce and Economic ministries announced that fuel price increases, including a 38 percent jump for gasoline and 47 percent for diesel, would take effect at midnight.

The now-suspended decision by Moïse’s government to raise prices was part of an agreement with the International Monetary Fund, which requires the country to enact a range of austerity measures.

Reporting by David Alire Garcia in Mexico City, Reuters TV in Port-au-Prince, Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles, and David Morgan in Washington; Editing by G Crosse and Darren Schuettler