, PORT-AU-PRINCE, Nov 23 – Violence flared ahead of weekend elections in quake-hit Haiti amid a spiraling cholera epidemic that has already killed over 1,300 people, fueling debate over delaying the key polls.
Late Monday, gunmen attacked the motorcade of INITE ruling party candidate Jude Celestin during a campaign stop in the southeastern municipality of Beaumont.
"One person has gunshot wounds and windows of vehicles in the motorcade were shattered. Mr Celestin is safe and sound. He was not hit," INITE Senate candidate Jean Laveau Frederique told AFP. He blamed the attack on Celestin\’s opponents.
Earlier, clashes erupted in northwestern Haiti as supporters of longtime opposition leader and former first lady Mirlande Manigat vandalized Celestin\’s campaign headquarters, protesting the presence of electoral registration officers they accuse of being fraudulent government lackeys.
Offices of the Provisional Electoral Council (CEP) were also attacked elsewhere in the country, including in the southern town of Miragoane, Haitian radio reported.
Scene: Safe water out of reach for poor Haitians
Health officials said at least 1,344 people had died from the worsening cholera epidemic that has ravaged the country since mid-October — a rise of 94 from a day earlier. More than 57,000 cases have now been confirmed.
Amid fears the disease could spread more quickly in an election environment when people have to move and congregate, four of the 19 presidential candidates published a letter this weekend demanding the polls be put on hold.
But former prime minister Jacques-Edouard Alexis, a leading candidate, said the elections must go ahead as planned so that outgoing President Rene Preval leaves office as scheduled on February 7.
"That\’s why it\’s necessary to hold the elections, and people should go out and vote," he said. Haitians must "not allow this election to end in contested results. We will not accept a candidate that is an understudy of Preval."
Nearly 4.7 million Haitians are eligible to vote in Sunday\’s elections, which will also see 11 of the country\’s 30 senators and all 99 parliamentary deputies chosen.
The next president faces the mammoth task of rebuilding a traumatized nation of 10 million that was already the poorest in the Americas before a January earthquake flattened Port-au-Prince and claimed 250,000 lives.
Billions of dollars of international aid money could be squandered if no credible government emerges to replace Preval, who was himself under fire for his management of the cholera outbreak.
The head of the European Union mission in Haiti also called for the polls to take place as planned despite the uncertain climate due to the cholera epidemic.
Scene: Haitian cholera hospital counts its dead on the lawn
"Not holding elections right now could jeopardize Haiti\’s political stability. We are in the middle of rebuilding a country that needs a government able to manage the situation. There can be no pause in the momentum after the earthquake," Lut Fabert told reporters.
"Cholera should not prevent Haitians from going to vote on Sunday. Everything is ready. (The UN mission) MINUSTAH is ready to provide security."
The build-up to the elections has been complicated by anti-UN riots in several regions, particularly in the north where aid agencies complain their cholera response is being badly hampered.
UN peacekeepers from Nepal are accused of bringing cholera into the country — the epidemic erupted suspiciously near their base in the central Artibonite River valley and many Haitians are convinced they are to blame.
"As of today, there are no plans to move them out," UN assistant secretary general for field planning Tony Banbury said when asked about the future of the Nepalese contingent of just over 1,000 troops and police.
"The country is suffering, there are people dying. It is natural that Haitians want to know what the source is."
The Conference of Haitian Bishops has calle for calm, urging voters to "choose leaders who will work for all the people."
Port-au-Prince had been seen as particularly at risk of widespread infection because of the crowded and unsanitary conditions endured by those living in the squalid, makeshift tent cities.
But less than 80 deaths have been recorded so far in the capital and the humanitarian group Doctors Without Borders (MSF), which has taken a lead role in treating the disease there, says the situation in the city is stabilizing.