PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti – A desperate appeal from the president Wednesday failed to restore order to Haiti’s shattered capital, and bands of looters sacked stores, warehouses and government offices.
Gunfire rang out from the wealthy suburbs in the hills to the starving slums below as 9,000 U.N. peacekeepers were unable to halt a frenzy of looting and violence that has grown out of protests over rising food prices.
Many of the protesters are demanding the resignation of the U.S.-backed president, Rene Preval, and on Tuesday U.N. peacekeepers had to fire rubber bullets and tear gas to drive away a mob that tried to storm his palace.
Preval delivered his first public comments Wednesday, nearly a week into the protests. With his job on the line, Haiti’s president promised to press importers to lower food prices and appealed to the rioters to go home.
“The solution is not to go around destroying stores,” he said. “I’m giving you orders to stop.”
But gunfire rang out around the palace after the speech, as peacekeepers tried to drive away people looting surrounding stores.
The streets remained in the control of bands of young men carrying sticks and rocks, who set up roadblocks of burning tires and stopped passing cars. Businesses were closed and most people locked themselves indoors, as mobs looted stores, warehouses and government offices.
Black smoke billowed over the city as protesters set tires ablaze. Sustained gunfire was heard throughout Petionville, where many diplomats and foreigners live, and in Martissant, a lawless slum west of downtown.
Protests were reported Wednesday throughout Haiti. In the northern city of Cap-Haitien, bandits tried to steal food from the warehouse of the U.N. World Food Program, peacekeepers spokeswoman Sophie Boutaud de la Combe said.
Haiti is particularly affected by food prices, which have risen 40 percent on average globally since mid-2007. With 80 percent of its population struggling to survive on less than US$2 a day, the rising prices pose a real threat to its fragile democracy.