PETIONVILLE, Haiti — Protesters disputing results of the Nov. 28 presidential election paralyzed cities throughout Haiti Wednesday, demanding that a popular musician left out of the running be given a shot at the country's top spot.
Efforts to find a solution to Haiti's electoral crisis were delayed another day as angry protesters barricaded streets and threw rocks, preventing foreign diplomats from reaching President René Préval's private residence to debate a potential compromise. By late Wednesday, hundreds of protesters were keeping vigil at a gas station near the president's home.
The protests also kept electoral officials, who had hoped to discuss options to end the impasse, away from their offices.
Preliminary results released Tuesday night by Haiti's Provisional Electoral Council showed government-backed candidate Jude Célestin won enough votes to go on to a Jan. 16 runoff against university provost Mirlande Manigat, a former first lady. Singer Michel "Sweet Micky'' Martelly finished third -- by a .64 percent margin.
But Martelly backers and anti-government protesters say ballot boxes were stuffed, voters were disenfranchised and many stayed away from the polls.
One response: furious protesters torched one of the headquarters of the government's Unity coalition Wednesday morning.
Losing candidates urged the Haitian government to void the vote. All in the international community encouraged candidates to contest the results through legal challenges while some also pushed for either Célestin to drop out or make the runoff a three-way race.
Legal and constitutional concerns mired the options.
Streets throughout Port-au-Prince were blocked by smoking tire barricades and buildings were set on fire -- chaos that some critics said was exacerbated by a U.S. Embassy statement calling the preliminary election results "inconsistent'' with a quick-count conducted by the National Election Observation Council, which had put more than 5,500 observers in the field on election day.
The observers' results -- based on just 15 percent of the ballots -- had Martelly headed into a runoff with Manigat. Instead, Martelly placed third by less than 7,000 votes.
The embassy later issued a second less critical statement that made no mention of the quick-count.
"The country was thrown in a crisis by the Provisional Electoral Council, and it's wicked results,'' Martelly told a local radio station. ``People have the right to demonstrate peacefully without violence.''
He did not, as many had hoped, urge his supporters to end the protests.
"I am with you until victory,'' he said.
The disturbances disrupted travel to Haiti, as all airports closed until further notice.
Acknowledging there was "certainly'' fraud in Haiti's contested election, President René Préval appealed for calm Wednesday, telling Haitians to turn instead to the complaint process.
Candidates had three days since Tuesday's announcement to appeal.
"We are asking everyone please, stop burning tires on the roads, stop destroying government buildings, stop attacking people's businesses,'' Préval said in a live radio address to the nation. "We are asking everyone to obey the law.'' Asked about the U.S. embassy statement, Préval said: the U.S embassy is not the electoral council -- nor is the observer group.
The U.S. State Department in Washington said it was not to blame for the violence.
"The United States is in no way responsible for the actions of any individual,'' spokesman P.J. Crowley said. "What we are determined to help Haiti achieve is a credible election and a result -- not one that the United States will impose, but one that the people of Haiti can participate in fully ...that reflects the will of the Haiti people and will have the legitimacy and support necessary to move the country forward.''
Préval's call for calm and the watered-down statement by the embassy had little impact on the streets. As Préval spoke, police fired tear gas in Petionville and less than an hour later, protesters blocked the only road leading to Préval's private residence in the hills of Laboule, a Port-au-Prince suburb.
Several young men hauled two oversized trash bins to the road's entrance and set them ablaze as others cheered.
In Delmas, masked protesters threw rubble at Brazilian United Nations troops in front of the earthquake-battered office of the elections council.
"It's your right to protest, but protest in peace,'' said Préval. "If we can't put trust an institution that is independent, and credible...the country will have problems.''
It was the first time Préval had publicly talked about the preliminary results from the presidential and legislative election.
And he was the one some blamed for the electoral crisis.
"He's the one who caused this problem,'' said Widner Jacques, 36, a mechanic. "We voted for somebody and they should give us that person.''
On Wednesday, there were sporadic clashes between protesters with police and U.N. peacekeepers, who fired tear gas to disperse bands of mostly teenage boys and young men.
Many of them spent the day running up and down the capital, waving pink posters for Martelly and demanding Préval's ouster and arrest. Thousands also marched in Cap-Haitien.
"We voted Micky; they gave us Jude,'' they sang.
Daniel Supplice, a political strategist for Martelly, told The Miami Herald that the third-place finisher was still deciding what to do.
"We are contesting the results,'' Supplice said. "We do not believe that Jude Célestin has that much popularity and amount of votes that was announced yesterday.''
Martelly, he said, has no control over the people in the streets. ``The people in the streets believe their vote was stolen,'' he said. ``We did not put the people in the streets, so we cannot pull them out of the streets.''
The angst on the street was a reflection of disappointment with Préval's administration, he said, which has been dogged by complaints that recovery from the Jan. 12 quake is going too slowly. Célestin, in charge of the country's road-building agency -- is viewed as the president's hand-picked successor.
Célestin, 48, did not make any public comments Wednesday but in a sit-down interview with The Miami Herald earlier in the week said that his supporters have been anxious to take to the streets ever since opposition leaders alleged fraud and called for a cancellation of the vote.
"We are a responsible group, we believe in responsible leadership,'' he said, while also conceding he doesn't know how long he and others can hold back supporters.
Some unsuccessful candidates renewed their calls to void the elections.
"It's the president's fault. It's the international community's fault. It's the [election council's] fault,'' said Charles-Henri Baker, an opposition presidential candidate who took sixth place. ``They didn't listen. There's a long fight if they don't annul those elections.''
Préval insisted that the complaint process is there for a reason.
"Every election has fraud,'' Préval said. "The [complaint process] is there to uncover the fraud.''