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Cholera protests ebb in Haiti but anger remains

By Jonathan M. Katz

Associated Press

Published: Friday, Nov. 19 2010 12:16 p.m. MST

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Protests over the cholera epidemic faded Friday but young men burned tires and threw rocks at police near government buildings amid surging anger over a disease that has killed more than 1,100 people so far.

Frustrations simmered as the medical aid group Doctors Without Borders issued a statement that "despite the huge presence of international organizations in Haiti, the cholera response has to date been inadequate in meeting the needs of the population."

The aid group, which has been one of the primary responders to the epidemic, said that other international organizations have failed to provide enough safe water or soap, build enough latrines and waste disposal sites, or remove dead bodies. It also criticized groups for not reassuring people that the disease is treatable.

Cholera had never before been confirmed in Haiti, and fears spurred by the arrival of the disease have led to attacks on treatment facilities and riots against U.N. peacekeepers who many suspect of having brought the disease to Haiti.

Friday's small-scale protest in the capital, Port-au-Prince, was far more muted than in previous days, when protesters clashed with U.N. peacekeepers, leaving three dead in Cap-Haitien, Haiti's second-largest city. On Thursday, demonstrators attacked foreigners' cars in Port-au-Prince.

The upheaval over the cholera outbreak that has killed comes just days before national elections planned for Nov. 28. U.N. officials argue that the violence is being encouraged by forces that want to disrupt the ballot, and some demonstrators Thursday threw rocks at an office of President Rene Preval's Unity party and tore down campaign posters.

But the anger is fueled by suspicions that a contingent of Nepalese soldiers brought cholera with them to Haiti and spread the disease from their rural base into the Artibonite River system, where the initial outbreak was centered last month. It is a suspicion shared by some prominent global health experts.

Cholera had not been recorded before in Haiti despite rampant bad sanitation and poor access to drinking water, problems that cause outbreaks of the disease in other parts of the world. Cholera is endemic to Nepal and there was an upsurge there before the Nepalese troops came to Haiti.

Experts have not pinpointed the origin of Haiti's epidemic, however, and the 12,000-member U.N. Stabilization Mission in Haiti, or MINUSTAH, denies responsibility.

U.N. peacekeepers have been the dominant security force in Haiti for six years, and there was resentment against them even before the cholera outbreak.

Standing before the thick black smoke of blazing tires Thursday, protesters in Port-au-Prince yelled "We say no to MINUSTAH and no to cholera." Some carried signs reading "MINUSTAH and cholera are twins." The windows of several cars belonging to the United Nations and to humanitarian groups were broken.

"It's not only that (the U.N. peacekeepers) have to leave but the cholera victims must get paid (damages)," said Josue Meriliez, one of the demonstrators.

Haitian police fired tear gas at the protesters on the central Champ de Mars plaza, and clouds of choking irritants blew into nearby tent shelters of thousands made homeless by the Jan. 12 earthquake.

Protesters also threw rocks at a motorcade leaving the national palace, which fired warning shots to clear a path. It was not immediately known if President Rene Preval was in the motorcade.

Aid workers, including U.N. humanitarian agencies that are structurally separate from the peacekeeping force, have been calling for calm, saying the violence is hampering efforts to treat the tens of thousands of people stricken with cholera.

The disease had spread to Haiti's national prison in Port-au-Prince, International Red Cross spokesman Marcal Izard said Friday in Geneva.

Izard said 30 inmates have been infected with the diarrheal disease and 10 have died in the past four days. The prison holds 2,000 inmates, or about a quarter of Haiti's total prison population.

The disease is spread by contaminated fecal matter. Health experts say it can be easily treated with rehydration or prevented outright by ensuring good sanitation and getting people to drink only purified water.

But after years of instability, and despite decades of development projects, many Haitians have little access to clean water, toilets or health care.

Associated Press writer Evens Sanon in Port-au-Prince and Ezequiel Abiu Lopez in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, contributed to this report.

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