Haiti paralysed by riots and looting over food prices

ROADS were blocked and sustained gunfire rang out in upscale neighbourhoods in the mountains above Port-au-Price yesterday, as protests and looting over soaring food prices paralysed the Haitian capital.

National television said President Rene Preval, who has made no public statements since the unrest began last week, would address the nation in a speech that could determine the course of the demonstrations — and of his government.

“I believe if President Preval talks to the people about the high cost of living, people will listen to the president and go home,” said Senator Joseph Lambert, a former senate president and a member of Preval’s party. “If not, if there is an attempt at a coup d’etat to remove the president, things will get worse.”

Rioters angry over sharply rising food prices in the hemisphere’s poorest country have been demanding the resignation of Preval, who was elected in 2006. They tried to break through the gates of the presidential palace on Tuesday before UN peacekeepers chased them away with tear gas and rubber bullets.

Yesterday, police cleared away torched cars and other debris left by two days of looting and rioting. But helicopters circled the air amid black smoke rising from intersections as protesters continued to set tires ablaze, and gunfire was heard throughout Petionville, where many diplomats and foreigners live. Several people have been injured in the capital, including a Haitian police officer, UN police spokesman Fred Blaise said.

Five people have been killed in food riots in the southern city of Les Cayes, where protesters tried to burn down the United Nations compound last week.

The US Embassy suspended visa services and routine operations yesterday because of the violence, and advised Americans in Port-au-Prince and Les Cayes to remain indoors.

Food prices, which have risen 40% on average globally since mid-2007, are causing unrest around the world. But they pose a particular threat to democracy in Haiti, where most people live on less than $2 (€1.27) a day.

“We hope the president says food prices are going to go down,” said Paul Fleury, a 53-year-old man who has been unemployed for a decade. “I have five kids and I provide food if I can. Some days it’s bread and sugar.”

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