PORT-AU-PRINCE - Rioting has spread to the Haitian capital where hundreds of people clashed with UN troops they blamed for a worsening cholera epidemic.
Stone-throwing youths raced Thursday through the rubble-strewn streets of fetid camps built for earthquake survivors as UN peacekeepers in armored trucks fired tear gas on the crowds in running clashes that lasted several hours.
Sporadic gunfire echoed through the quake-ravaged streets of the capital as demonstrators blocked roads with burning tires and dumpsters overflowing with rotting garbage.
"The UN came here to kill us, to poison us," shouted Alexis Clerius, a 40-year-old farmer, as he erected a barricade in the main Champ de Mars square.
Organizers had urged people to vent their anger at the United Nations and Haitian authorities over the cholera outbreak, which has killed more than 1,100 people since it began in late October.
The powder keg situation stems from claims the cholera emanated from septic tanks at a base for Nepalese UN peacekeepers in central Haiti, leaking into the Artibonite River, where locals drink, wash clothes and bathe.
The UN says it tested some of the Nepalese and found no trace of cholera, while health officials say it is impossible to know and the focus must be on containing the epidemic and not divining its source.
President Rene Preval has pleaded for calm and denounced unnamed groups for taking advantage of the cholera to stir tension ahead of November 28 national elections to choose his successor. Scene: Haitians rally around cries - 'the UN here to kill us'
But anger, fueled by rumor, was running high in Port-au-Prince and in northern Haiti, the epicenter of the cholera outbreak and where deadly riots first broke out earlier this week, leaving three people dead.
"It's all [the United Nation's] fault. We know the Nepalese were sloppy and that's why we're sick, and now they are being bullies," said Seraphine Macoult, 36, a teacher whose daughter was a cholera patient at a medical center in northwest Haiti.
The UN peacekeeping force MINUSTAH has warned people not to be manipulated by "enemies of stability and democracy."
But in the poorest country in the Americas -- even before the January earthquake shook the capital to rubble and killed 250,000 people -- MINUSTAH is a highly visible presence and a target of widespread frustration.
"There is no infrastructure, no education. Cholera is ravaging the people and the president says nothing," said Ladiou Novembre, a 38-year-old secondary school teacher who joined the scattered demonstrations in Port-au-Prince.
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"MINUSTAH should be keeping peace in the country, but instead they make things worse. MINUSTAH is killing Haitians."
Hundreds of rock-throwing youths attacked one open-top truck carrying members of the UN force.
The international peacekeepers pointed guns at the youths and one briefly fell out of the vehicle under a volley of stones before managing to climb back in.
Protesters shouted slogans like: "Cholera: It's MINUSTAH who gave it to us!" and "MINUSTAH, Go home!"
The unrest is especially worrying as the UN peacekeepers are scheduled to help organize and preside over the elections.
Aid workers say the violence in the north is hampering efforts to treat cholera victims and stop the spread of the disease, which officials warn could kill 10,000 people over the next 12 months if it continues unabated.
US health experts warned on Thursday that the epidemic was unpredictable and repeated outbreaks could wreak havoc for years to come.
"The Haitian population has no preexisting immunity to cholera, and environmental conditions in Haiti are favorable for its continued spread," the the US-based Centers for Disease Control said in a progress report.
More than 18,000 people have been infected by the diarrhea-causing illness since the outbreak began last month.
One isolated case has been found in the neighboring Dominican Republic and a second in the US state of Florida -- both from people who traveled from Haiti. Dominican authorities are investigating a possible second case.
Health officials fear cholera could spread like wildfire if it infiltrates squalid relocation camps around the capital where hundreds of thousands of quake refugees live in cramped and unsanitary conditions.
Most deaths have been in central and northern Haiti, with the disease not yet widespread in the capital.